Category Archives: In praise of

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old mercato with its iron uprights and grimy glass roof, with it’s coarse, chaotic charm and surly attitude has now been replaced by a bright, polite and shiny-white structure that adheres to all sorts of regulations.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

Roll with it

P1150469

The number eight tram rolls a good route. At least I think so. Starting in Largo di Torre Argentina, it cuts straight and then crosses the bridge, runs the entire length of Viale Trastevere before curving its way along Gianicolense and sliding into the terminus at Casaletto. On a good day; clear and avoiding the rush, top to tail takes about 22 minutes. On a bad day; rain and rush, it takes 35.

I don’t very often top to tail or tail to top on the number eight. Most days I’ll ride a section though: The Ministry of Education up to work at the children’s theatre, the theatre up to the park, purveyors of fine pizza bianca back to The Ministry, my biscuit shop up to Stazione Trastevere. Come to think of it, of all my routes – there are many, I’m both dedicated and dependent on the exasperating Roman public transport system – this is the one I ride the most.

Then every so often, last Saturday for example, we roll the whole line and are not only reminded what good curved cut the N° 8 makes through the city, but what a good destination awaits at the end of the line.

P1150477

Occupying the ground floor of a nondescript modern building just yards from the tram terminus and identifiable only by a small yellow sign, the trattoria Cesare al Casaletto is, from the outside, unremarkable. I’d passed by, at first oblivious and then dismissive, dozens and dozens of times. Then, on advice from Katie, we went for lunch. The best lunch we’d had in a long time. And so we went back, again and again, each visit reaffirming our conviction.

Bright and luminous, da Cesare is the antitheses of the archetypal shadowy and surly Roman Trattoria – I should add I like shadowy and surly from time to time. It’s quietly elegant yet cordial and comfortable. On Saturday we were given a table in the nicest corner with plenty of space for a high chair. Da Cesare is a family trattoria in the truest sense and this is personified by the owner’s bold little girl who marches up to your table to say ciao.

P1150478

To start, we divided a portion of plump, preserved anchovies: oily, fiendishly fishy filets to be squashed onto bread and polpette di bollito misto; delicate, fragile, deep-fried spheres of breaded shredded veal served with a spoonful of pesto. Then we shared a primo of fresh egg pasta with vignarola (braised artichokes, peas, broad beans and spring onions) and pecorino romano cheese. We paused. For secondo my companion had baccalà alla Romana (salt cod with tomatoes) and I had involtini al sugo, two quietly delicious beef rolls in a rich tomato sauce. There were also side dishes, one a tangle of dark-green ragged cicioria ripassata and another of chips. Such good chips. We finished with coffee and biscuits that had not long been pulled from the oven.

It took me a few visits to understand what makes the Food at da Cesare so special. Of course it’s the excellent ingredients, the skill and a lightness of touch that transforms traditional Roman food – the menu is much the same as any menu you might find in any trattoria – into something so vital and impressive. Then, after the fourth or fifth meal, I understood. It’s the care taken that sets da Cesare apart. Real care without pretense or fuss, without swagger or caricature. The food makes even more sense when you talk to the owner, Leonardo Vignoli or his wife. Both are gentle, modest, passionate, attentive: a rare combination in Rome.  The wine list is as splendid as the food. As is the advice to help you navigate it.

P1150482

As I paid the bill I asked Leonardo about the involtini, the two unassuming beef rolls that had been simmered tenderly in tomato sauce, maybe the nicest I have ever eaten (and I have eaten a few.) ‘Thin slices of good beef, well seasoned with salt, pepper and garlic wrapped around impossibly thin batons of carrot and celery and then simmered gently in tomato for an hour and a half‘ was his advice. ‘How would I know they were done?’ I asked. ‘Touch and taste‘ was his reply. Then he was gone – politely of course – back into the kitchen and I was left with a queue of questions trailing down my throat.

My first attempt was acceptable. My second very reasonable. My third attempt at involtini however, was a resounding success. Not quite reaching the benchmark set by Da Cesare, but nearly. Ask your butcher to cut you 10 thin slices of beef – rump or chuck is ideal. Season the slices prudently with fine salt, freshly ground black pepper and very finely chopped garlic if you so wish (I don’t.) Position a fat bundle of painfully thin carrot and celery batons at the bottom of the slice and then roll, tuck and roll until you have a neat parcel. Secure the roll lengthways with a toothpick. You brown your involtini in hot oil, nudging and turning, until they are evenly coloured and then you cover them with wine and tomato and simmer for a good long while.

P1150488

The tomato reduces into a dense, flavoursome sauce and the beef rolls – with their neat bundle of savory – are simmered into tenderness. I wouldn’t have given these involtini a thought (never mind a second glance) before coming to live in Rome. Old-fashioned, boring and just damn fuddy-duddy I might have mumbled. Little did I know. Made carefully with good ingredients, they are simply delicious, richly favoured and well, very Roman. And the word involtini? It comes form the verb avvolgere (to wrap) so literally translated means, a little thing that has been wrapped.

Of course involtini work well as part of a Roman-style lunch. That is; a tasty antipasti, a modest portion of pasta and then a roll (or two) served alone on a white plate with nothing more than a crust of bread to scoop up the sauce. They are also good in a more English manner, that is beside a pile of extremely buttery mashed potato (what isn’t?) Roll with it.

P1150492

Involtini al sugo  Beef rolls in tomato sauce

Inspired by the involtini at  Cesare al Casaletto with advice from my butchers at Sartor.

serves 4 (two each with two extra to squabble over)

  • 1 large carrot, peeled and cut into extremely thin batons (roughly the same length as the beef is wide)
  • 1 large stick of celery cut into extremely thin batons  (roughly the same length as the beef is wide)
  • 10 thin slices of beef (3mm or so) – rump or chuck is ideal
  • salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • a clove of garlic, finely chopped (optional)
  • 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
  • a small glass of white wine or red wine
  • 500 g tinned plum tomatoes coarsely chopped or passed through the food mill

Peel and then cut the carrot and celery into extremely thin batons roughly the same length as the beef slice is wide.

Take a slice of beef, lay it flat on the work surface, season with salt, pepper and very finely chopped garlic if you are using it. Again, I don’t use garlic. Place a bundle of carrot and celery at the bottom of the beef slice and then roll the beef around the batons, tucking the sides in if you can, until you have a neat cylinder. Secure the roll with a toothpick along its length.

Warm the olive oil in a heavy based saute pan. Add beef rolls, and cook, turning as needed, until browned on all sides, which will take about 6 minutes.

Add the glass of wine to the pan, raise the heat so the wine sizzles and evaporates. Add the tomatoes and stirring and nudging the rolls so they are evenly spaced and well coated with tomato. Bring to a boil, and then reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook the rolls covered partially – gently stirring and turning the rolls a couple of times – until meat is cooked through and tender which will take about 1 and a half – 2 hours. Add a little more wine or water if the sauce seems to be drying out during the cooking.

Lets the rolls rest for at least 15 minutes before serving with a spoonful of sauce and some bread.

P1150494

43 Comments

Filed under beef, Da Cesare al Casaletto, food, In praise of, meat, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, tomatoes

Layer upon layer

P1150045

Lately I’ve been thinking about layers. Mostly mundane ones: clothes, coats and covers, the management of which occupies a ridiculous amount of my time, what with a child and March’s capricious climate. Not that this ridiculous amount of time ever seems to pay off. I am, it seems, destined to always get it wrong and we end up either hot and bothered, cold and cantankerous or simply soaking wet.

My almost impressive ability to misjudge meteorological matters was less important when it was just me. But now I have a small boy clamped to my chest or clutching my hand, a small inappropriately dressed 18 month-old boy whose every sniff and sneeze precipitates a chorus of street tutting and disapproval –  ‘Non si fa cosi signora! Povero bambino‘ –  I wish I could judge the layers better! At least once in a while.

P1150046

Inappropriately dressed we’ve been walking in search of less mundane and more intriguing layers. Armed with Elizabeth Speller’s book of ten guided walks – of which we have now completed seven –  we’ve been discovering Rome anew, observing layer upon layer of her glorious and inglorious past and her shambolic and sublime present. Of course the great baroque facades, imperial ruins and palazzi of renaissance princes are stupendous. As are the tiny piazze, labyrinthine cobbled alleys and half forgotten fountains. But it’s the unexpected and incongruous that really arrests me, when fragments, as ES puts it, ‘burst forth.’

A single arch of an ancient edifice rising forlornly between two 19th century apartment blocks, a 2000 year old column holding up a tenement kitchen, a routine hole for a routine check by the Roman water board that has been appropriated by archeologists, a mechanics workshop built into an ancient pile of broken pots, an ancient arch – onto which an unsupervised dog is relieving himself – marooned in the middle of the pavement beside a busy road. Antiquity bursting forth and then just sitting there nonchalantly while perfectly modern lives roar or meander by. Layer upon layer.

At home there have been layers of lasagne.

P1150047

It has taken me a year to lift the pasta maker out of its box and clamp it to the work surface. I’m as proficient at procrastination as I am meteorological misjudgment. If the truth be known the chrome plated steel Imperia would still be languishing in cardboard at the bottom of the cupboard were it not for Paola: my friend and lasagne teacher. I met Paola a few years ago when she hosted a party for our mutual friend Sergio in her garden. It had been noted that we’d get on and that Paola was an excellent cook, We did and she is, particularly when it comes to la lasagna.

Before coming to Italy I was deeply suspicious of lasagna, traumatized by too many encounters with thick yellow sheets that managed  – quite impressively – to be both over and undercooked, big bulging layers of very busy ragu, floods of floury white sauce and cheddar crusts. Thud, squelch, indigestion. It was awful. I was scarred for lasagna life. So scarred, that even the more refined, relatively well executed lasagna left me unmoved. I decided it was best that I just let lasagna lie.

P1150048

I almost spurned the slice Vincenzo brought over to me during the party. Then I realised it was unlike any lasagna I’d ever seen. Paola rolls her fresh handmade egg pasta as thin as thin can be, which renders it light, extremely delicate and allows it to be the absolute protagonist, appearing in eight or nine layers. The sauces and others layers. whether they be a rich ragu, sautéed vegetables, ricotta, mozzarella, parmesan, a limpid white sauce are all merely supporting artists. Very important supporting artists mind: proud, present and bestowing deep flavour, but never swamping or overwhelming the star: the almost transparent leaves of pasta. The slice looked a little like a closed accordion, it managed to be delicate and imponderous and yet richly flavored and substantial. I ate three slices. I then lay in a somnolent posture under a tree.

Some years later I’m standing in Paola’s kitchen in her house near Velletri, a town about an hour south of Rome. It is a vast enviable space, with a pale marble-topped work surface, wood burning stove and wooden table long enough for twelve. It’s a comfortable and unpretentious space though, with nothing twee or themed about it, no suggestions of whimsical rustic. I note that I could spend a lot of time in this kitchen. We drink coffee and then roll up our sleeves, tie on our aprons and make lasagne.

P1150049

First we make our dough, kneading methodically and rhythmically until it’s smooth and soft as putty. Then we position ourselves bedside Paola’s chrome Imperia, launch a blizzard of flour over the worksuface and then begin passing the pieces of pasta between the metal rollers.  9 pieces, passed one by one through the six settings. That’s 54 rounds. 54 raptious rounds as rolling pasta is one of the nicest kitchen tasks I’ve undertaken in a very long time.

It never ceases to amaze me how a good and patient teacher can make even the most complicated of tasks seem entirely manageable and you – the student – feel capable and just a little chuffed. Not that rolling pasta is particularly complicated. You do need guidance though and some sound counsel about cutting, folding, feeding, dusting with flour and how to manage the ever-increasing lengths of soft, egg lasagne. I’ve tried as best I can to include Paola’s guidance in the recipe below. I do hope it is helpful. I would encourage you to find a teacher too, a patient and capable one.

And so the filling.  Being, as it is, the season for the tender-hearted warrior of the vegetable world, Rome’s glorious globe, a lasagna with artichokes and ricotta seems appropriate, at least it did in our flat last Monday. Having made your pasta and set it aside to rest, you set about preparing your other layers. First the artichokes, which need trimming, slicing and then cooking in olive oil and wine – a slow sauté/braise really until they are extremely tender. Extremely tender: a soft, creamy mush really but with some discernible pieces.

P1150041

Next you make a panful of béchamel, which needs to be loose, fluid and pourable. And finally you whip the ricotta into a light, lactic cream with whole milk and season it prudently. It’s also important to eat at a little of your ricotta cream on toast while you watch your son putting oranges and your purse in the washing machine.

Having rolled the pasta as thin as you dare, you need to par-boil it. A vast pan of well salted, fast boiling water is important, as is an equally large bowl of cold water and plenty of clean dry tea towels arranged strategically all over your kitchen  – which will make it feel a little like a chinese laundry. Bold and brave moves are best. Drop five sheets of lasagne into the water. Once the water comes back to the boil, let the sheets lumber and roll for a minute before scooping them out as you would a slippy, wriggling toddler from a bath tub, plunging them into the cold water (to halt the cooking and prevent sticking, the curse of long, exquisitely thin lasagne) and then spreading them out on the tea towels.

Now is all that’s left is to assemble, to put layer upon layer. A layer of Pasta, a layer of artichokes, béchamel and parmesan, another of pasta, the next of artichokes, ricotta and parmesan, another of pasta and so and so and so. Use scissors to snip the pasta into shape and do not be afraid of patches. Keep in mind the layers of artichoke, ricotta and bèchamel should be scarce and subtle sploges rather than a dense layer, supporting, bestowing flavour but never dominating. 15 minutes in the oven and then a 15 minute rest.

Layer upon layer for lunch. And what a good lunch: delicate and imponderous and yet richly flavored and substantial. A lunch during which I felt proud as punch. Paola ti voglio bene. This is may well become my Sunday best.

P1150065

This recipe is – like most of my posts – long and possibly rather daunting (and/or trying.)  The length is due to all the simple but numerous phases, please don’t let it deter you. Of course time, effort and organisation are required! But it is undeniably, irrefutably, assolutamente worth every minute, knead, rock and roll, chop, whisk and blooming-lovely layer.

Lasagne ai carciofi e ricotta – Artichoke and ricotta Lasagna

Inspired by Paola, with sound advice from Marcella Hazan and Franco and Ann Taruschio

serves 6

for the pasta

  • 300 g farina di semola (semolina flour) or plain pasta flour
  • 3 medium-sized free range eggs
  • a pinch of salt

for the artichoke layer

  • 8 large /10 medium globe artichokes
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • salt
  • a glass of white wine

for the bèchamel sauce

  • 50 g butter
  • 50 g plain flour
  • 700 ml whole milk
  • salt
  • black or white pepper
  • nutmeg

For the ricotta layer

  • 300 g ricotta
  • 150 ml whole milk
  • salt
  • black pepper

and

  • 100 g parmesan cheese
  • olive oil
  • salt and pepper

Begin the pasta.  Make a mound of flour on the work surface and scoop a deep hollow in the center. Sprinkle over a pinch of salt. Break the eggs into the hollow and then using your fingers beak the yolks and start working the egg into the flour. Bring the dough together until you have a smoothly integrated mixture.

Knead the dough, pushing it forward with the heel of your palm. Fold the dough in half, give it a half turn and press it hard against the heel of your palm again. Knead for a full eight minutes by which time the dough should be smooth and soft as putty. Cover the pasta with cling film and set it aside.

Prepare the artichokes. Prepare the artichokes by first pulling away the darker tougher leaves, tugging 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. As you work, rub the cut edges of the artichoke with a cut lemon or sit them in a bowl of acidulated water. Slice away the stem and cut it into thick match sticks and then cut the bulb into 8 wedges. In a heavy based pan, warm the olive oil and then saute the artichoke pieces briefly. Add a pinch of salt and the wine, stir and reduce the flame so the artichokes bubble gently. Cover the pan and allow the artichokes to steam/braise for about 20 minutes or until they are extremely tender. The artichokes must not dry out, but stay extremely moist so add more water if necessary. Mash the artichokes gently with the back of the wooden spoon so they collapse into a creamy mush but with some discernible chunks.

Make the béchamel. In small pan heat the milk and bay leaf until it almost reaches boiling point. Remove the milk from the heat and then leave to sit for 5 minutes. Heat the butter in a heavy based pan; as soon as it starts to foam, whisk in the flour. Keep whisking steadily for 2 minutes, then remove the pan from the heat. Add a little of the milk and whisk until you have a smooth paste. Return the pan to the heat and then add the rest of the milk, whisking continuously until the milk boils. Season with salt, black pepper and a grating of nutmeg. Lower the heat and simmer, stirring and whisking frequently for about 10 minutes or until the sauce is thick.

Prepare the ricotta. Using a fork beat and whip the ricotta with the milk until you have a soft, light paste, season with salt and  black pepper.

Roll and cook pasta. Cut the ball of pasta into 9 pieces (the general rule is the number of pieces should be 3 times the number of eggs. So 3 eggs = 9 pieces). Sprinkle the work surface with flour. Set the pasta machine to the widest setting. Flatten one of the pieces of dough by pummeling it with your hands and then run it through the machine. Fold the pasta as you would an envelope by bringing the two ends over each other, so the piece is a third of its length, and run it through the machine again. Repeat with the other 8 pieces.

Close the gap in the rollers down by one notch and run the pasta pieces through one by one. Continue thinning the pieces progressively closing down the notches one by one until the pasta is as thin as you want it. Paola rolls her pasta through all six settings so it is impressively thin. You may need to cut the pieces in half.

Bring a large pan of well salted water to a fast boil. Prepare a large bowl of cold water. On your largest work surface spread out clean tea towels. Lower 5 sheets at a time into the water. Once the water has come back to a fast boil allow the sheets to cook for 1 minute before scooping them out, plunging them into the cold water and then laying them out on the clean tea towels. Repeat until all the sheets are cooked.

Set oven to 200 ° and grate the parmesan.

Assemble la lasagna. Rub a little olive oil and a smear of béchamel over the base of the tin ( a 34 cm tin is ideal). Arrange a layer of lasagne first, try not to have more than 6 mm of overlap, use scissors to cut the lasagne. Spread a thin layer of artichoke on the pasta, then a layer of béchamel and sprinkle over a little parmesan. Now another layer of pasta, another (thin) layer of artichoke and one of ricotta, more parmesan and a little olive oil. Repeat putting artichokes and parmesan in each layer but alternating bèchamel and ricotta. You should finish with the eighth layer of pasta. Spread over the last of the béchamel, sprinkle with parmesan and drizzle over a little olive oil.

Bake the lasagna in the pre heated oven for 15 minutes by which time it should have a golden crust and bubble at the edges, Allow the lasagna to rest for at least 15 minutes before bringing to the table and serving directly from the dish.

Eat layer upon layer.

P1150067

173 Comments

Filed under artichokes, food, fresh egg pasta, In praise of, pasta and rice, rachel eats Italy, recipes, ricotta, spring recipes, Uncategorized

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

Don’t forget to soak

It is almost always the case that I’m wearing my dressing gown and one-armed – therefore lopsided – glasses when I put my beans to soak. This is because the beans are slumped next to the coffee, tea, neglected herbal bags (mango passionfruit and vanilla – as hideous as it sounds,) a very peculiar chicory drink I bought when I was pregnant and not thinking straight and the Green and Blacks hot chocolate in the kitchen cupboard. I’m probably slumped up against the kitchen counter in much the same way as my legumes are against the tin of Earl Grey tea when I catch sight of the beans. They stare back, both appealing and reproaching. ‘Two months woman, two months and without so much as a dusting!’ And so as the Moka rattles to its delicious climax and the milk warms in the pan, I tip my white, brown or mottled beans into my largest tin bowl and then cover them with water.

On Monday morning it was pearly white coco beans that skittled into the bowl. Coco beans bought from Giovanni and Assunta Bernabei’s Stall at Testaccio farmers market with Mona. The stall with the sign that reads ‘My name is Giovanni Bernabei.  Ever since 1983, I made a pact with myself to touch no longer with my hands any fodder, fertilizer or any chemical products whatsoever.  So long as I have the strength to raise a hoe, I will labor for those who believe in me and appreciate my produce.’ Needless to say, Giovanni is one of my food heroes.

On Monday afternoon I cooked the beans, letting them lumber to the boil and then shudder away burping every now and then for about 4o minutes until they were soft, tender and surrounded by an opaque pool of unassuming bean broth.

Unassuming but inimitable. This cloudy spoonful is the other reason I buy fresh beans or good dried ones and then soak and cook them myself. This cloudy, starchy, richly flavored liquid is the ingredient that makes bean soups, stews and dishes like pasta e fagioli taste so good. I learned the hard way. Vincenzo made a very odd noise and then buried his head in his hands for some time on observing me slosh the bean water down the plug-hole and then rinse the beans. I think he might have called me a barbarian. He shook his head repeatedly during lunch. I’ve never made the same mistake again.

I used a slotted spoon to remove the first meal’s worth of beans. They were still warm with just enough of the bean water clinging to them to keep them moist. Olive oil, crumbled salt and a twist of black pepper were all they needed. Beside my heap of soft white beans, I had seven black olives, half a small ball of mozzarella and three radishes.

Then yesterday – Tuesday – having been struck by an uncharacteristic but almost overwhelming desire for plump, pink sausages – I think one of my neighbours early morning cooking sessions might have curled up my noise and into my food consciousness or maybe it was just my hormones – I decided a thick bean braise, a bed of beans if you like for under my bangers was in order.

I took, as I often do, a well trodden path. Please forgive me if this blog is starting to feel a little a like a bean deja vu! I took an onion, a clove of garlic, a carrot and a stick of celery. I peeled, diced and then sautéed my harlequin heap in extra virgin olive oil until it was extremely tender, golden and – with much of the water sautéed away – intensely flavoured.  I added the beans and their precious broth, a generous pinch of salt and three twists of black pepper. I let the pan bubble and burp discretely for about 15 minutes.

The beans were ready long before my fat, cheeky-pink sausages from Sartor were. Fortunately for me, beans are forgiving things and perfect for someone with shoddy kitchen manners and awful timing. Both the beans and sautéed vegetable benefited no end – rather like me at about 3 0 clock – from a little rest. I cooked my sausages in the oven, pricking them with a fork first and then roasting them for about 40 minutes or so.

Once my sausages were burnished and smelling pretty irresistible, I pulled them from the oven. I gently warmed the beans, noting they needed another ladle of bean broth in order to achieve the right consistency. That is: thick enough to provide a comfortable bed, but still soft and very spoonable.

Warm bowl, a bed of beans and two fat sausages, Lunch. Now you may well note the absence of half a sausage on my plate. Three slices were eaten whilst plating up – yes I did work in the hospitality industry, 1988 – 90 at Harpenden Moat House: grim weddings, depressing family gatherings and budget Sunday roasts were a speciality – and yes I did burn my tongue.

Sausages and beans, how do I like thee? Let me count the ways. This is such a good plateful: the soft, nutty beans contrasting brilliantly with the fat pork sausages. Ben, Dan W, Harriet and C°, Dan Gunn in Berlin this is one for you.

The beans I used were this season’s, so only semi dried. I probably could have got away with not soaking them, However Assunta suggested I soaked them in cold water, drained them and then simmered them gently for just 40 minutes. Older, drier beans might have needed and longer soak and boil. As beans vary so dramatically, it’s difficult to give definitive advice! I suggest some experimentation, after all, the quest for good beans/ well cooked and a fine bean broth is one well worth undertaking.

A big pan of beans in bean broth will keep happily in the fridge for three days. Just make sure the beans are submerged under their broth. Remove beans with a clean spoon so as not to disturb the clever self-preservation that is occurring in the pan

White beans and sausages.

Serves 2.

  • 4 best quality pork sausages
  • 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium onion
  • a plump clove of garlic
  • 1 medium carrot
  • a stick of celery
  • salt
  • 300 – 400 g cooked white beans in their broth (cannellini or coco beans)
  • freshly ground black pepper

Peel and very finely dice the onion, garlic, carrot and celery. In a soup pot or deep sauté pan warm the olive oil over a modest flame and then the diced vegetables and a pinch of salt. Saute the ingredients, stirring and turning them regularly, until they are very soft and golden which should take about 15 minutes.

Add the beans and their broth to the pan, stir and then – still over a gentle flame – let the beans bubble away gently for another 10 or 15 minutes. You may need to add a little more bean water/broth. Taste and season again if necessary.

Serve the beans in a shallow bowl topped with two sausages. Eat.

50 Comments

Filed under bean broth, Beans and pulses, food, In praise of, recipes, sausages

This is the way.

Good chickens are – like true love, reliable plumbers and excellent espresso – hard to find. They are also, when you finally get your hands on one, costly things! Quite right too! We should be deeply suspicious of cheap (even modestly priced) chickens, they almost certainly have the darkest, dirtiest story etched into their tragic flesh. The chicken above, the one sitting in my new enamel roasting tin from Emanuela, is a good chicken. A blooming good chicken in fact, from my butcher Marco who in turn procured it from the blazing beacon of conscientious husbandry: Azienda San Bartolomeo. Having parted with the best part of 16€ (an investment in our sustenance for the next three days) and taken possession of our bird, we – that is Luca and I – also picked up half a dozen San Bartolomeo eggs, a fat pat of butter, five lemons, some bitter salad leaves and a piece of Lariano bread. After all, good chicken deserves good company.

We walked home the long way, following the deep arc of the river, which meant there were leaves to crunch and dogs to bark at! I crunched and Luca barked. We stopped, as we usually do, at Giolitti for an espresso before crossing our vast echoing courtyard and barking some more. Time was taken climbing the stairs, after all it’s important to peer between every other railing. It’s also important to ring the doorbell 17 times, especially when there is nobody at home. Then while Luca played with something inappropriate and slightly dangerous, I set about roasting.

Roast chicken is one of my favourite things both to make and eat. It’s also a significant meal for me, maybe the most significant. We ate roast chicken and then soup made from the leftovers and carcass, at least once a week when I was growing up. It’s a meal evocative of home, the kitchen in Kirkwick Avenue, my family and the meals we shared. Over the years roast chicken has bought us – parents, relatives and three Roddy kids in turn doe eyed bundles, eager fat-fingered toddlers, grasping children, grubby rascals, sullen teenagers and floundering/flourishing adults – together again and again and again. A burnished bird has the capacity to stir deep (food) memories, some crisp and golden, others as dark and sticky as the juices stuck to the bottom of the roasting pan.

I think of my mum and my granny Alice when I roast a chicken, especially at the beginning when I wash it in very cold water and then pat it absolutely dry with a clean cloth. My granny was – and my mum still is – a great believer in very cold water, clean cotton cloths and patting things absolutely dry. I rub my chicken, as my mum does, with butter. Butter I’ve remembered to leave out in the kitchen so it’s smearble. I’m as liberal with the salt and freshly milled black pepper as I am with the gin in a Gin and tonic: very.

I put a lemon up my chicken’s bottom (that was for you Ben) long before I came to Italy. However it was cut in two so the juice could be squeezed over the chicken and the hollow halves tucked inside. Now, as taught by my old neighbor Mima and guided by Marcella Hazan, I roll a lemon vigorously around the kitchen counter so it is soft. I prick it 37 times with a toothpick and then stick it up my chicken’s bottom just so.

I roast my lemon filled chicken with its breast down for 20 minutes. I then turn it breast up, crank up the oven a notch and roast it for another 40 minutes. I don’t baste. Then  – as taught by Simon Hopkinson in his aptly named book Roast chicken and other stories – I turn the oven off, open the door a jar and leave the chicken sitting in the cooling oven for another 20 minutes. These twenty minutes are vital. It is during this time, the cooking equivalent of a perfect vinyl fadeout, that the cooking finishes, the skin dries and flesh relaxes but clings to the precious juices making for a roast with properly crisp skin, succulent, tender flesh and easy carving

Actually carve is not the right word for a bird like this – a bird with runner’s legs and a lean breast – pull and tear is more appropriate. Using my hands, a knife and my poultry shears, I pull and tear my chicken to pieces. I do this in the roasting tin and then roll the pieces in the best sort of gravy: the buttery, lemony, nut-brown juices that have collected at the bottom of the tin.

Did I mention how I feel about the smell of roasting chicken? Oh you know! Of course you do, because you feel the same way! Excellent. Today we ate our chicken with mayonnaise (see below), a mixture of bitter and sweeter salad leaves and bread. What a good lunch! I had some wine too, an inch, maybe two and raised my glass to us, to my family – who seem a long way away these days – the whole delicious, tender, dark, messy, sticky lot of us.

Roast chicken with lemon

With advice from Granny, Mum, Simon Hopkinson and Marcella Hazan

Notes. A good roasting tin of the right size is pretty vital. It should be large enough to accommodate the chicken comfortably but small enough to contain the precious juices. I like, really like, this tin. You do not need to baste the chicken.

Serves 4 or in my case serves 1 and a quarter (Luca) for 3 days.

  • 1.5 – 2 kg / 3 – 4 lb chicken at room temperature
  • 50 g / 2 oz good butter at room temperature
  • salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 large unwaxed lemon

Set the oven to 180° / 350 F.

Wash the chicken both inside and out with cold water. Leave it sitting on a slightly tilted plate for 10 minutes or so, to let all the water drain away. Pat the chicken absolutely dry with a clean cloth.

Put the chicken in a roasting tin that will accommodate it with room to spare. Smear the butter with your hands all over the bird and then season it liberally with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Wash, dry and then soften the lemon by rolling it back and forth across the kitchen counter while applying pressure with your palm. Prick the lemon 37 times with a cocktail stick or trussing needle.

Tuck the lemon in the chicken cavity and then close the opening with two cocktail sticks. Don’t make an expert job of closing the opening or the chicken might just puff up and burst.

Turn the chicken beast side down in the roasting tin and place it in the upper third of the preheated oven. After 20 minutes turn the chicken the right way up. Do not baste.

Turn the oven up to 200° / 400 F and continue roasting the chicken for another 40 minutes. Turn the oven off, leaving the door ajar and let the chicken rest in the cooling oven for another 20 minutes.

Before carving tilt the chicken slightly so all the juices run into the tin. Stir the buttery, lemony, nut-brown juices  – scraping the thick dark ones from the bottom of the tin – with a wooden spoon. Carve, rip, tear, pull the chicken in the roasting tin letting the pieces and joints roll in the juices.

And may I suggest you make some mayonnaise!

mayonnaise

  • 2 egg yolks (at room temperature)
  • salt
  • 150 ml sunflower or grapeseed oil
  • 150 ml extra virgin olive oil
  • juice of half a lemon or dab of Dijon mustard

In a heavy bowl (which doesn’t require too much effort or holding to keep it firm) start whisking the egg yolks with a generous pinch of salt.

After a minutes, when the yolks are thick and sticky, start adding the groundnut oil very gradually – by very gradually I mean drop by drop and then a very thin stream. Do not rush and keep whisking as you add the oil.

Keep adding the oil until the mayonnaise seizes into a very thick ointment, at this point you can relax and add the sunflower oil in a slightly thicker stream.

When you have added all the groundnut oil, add the extra virgin olive oil (again in a thin stream) and keep whisking until you have a smooth, silky and firm mayonnaise. You may not need to add all the olive oil. Add a few drops of lemon juice or a dab of mustard, whisk, taste and then, if necessary a few drops/dab more. Add salt as you like.

Eat.

79 Comments

Filed under chicken, Eggs, fanfare, food, In praise of, Rachel's Diary, recipes

How do you like it

On observing my weary disposition and puffy eyes, a perky Northern-European neo-mother at my Wednesday morning mum-in suggested I had a shot of wheatgrass. I was poised to tell her I was allergic to chlorophyll and perkiness but she’d already moved on and was busy informing the Mamma of the baby that looks like a mini Billy Joel, that she should give up sugar and take up Bikram yoga. Later that same week I met my Venetian friend Francesca. After commiserating each other on our continuing sleep deprivation and being extremely uncharitable about perky Mothers, green juice and sweaty yoga, Francesca suggested I had a shot of Tiramisù. 

Tiramisù, well made, is a fiendishly good pudding. A sort of extra-boozy, fruitless, caffeinated trifle dredged with cocoa. It’s prepared – constructed really – by alternating layers of Savoiardi or sponge biscuits soaked in espresso and dark rum with a soft, pale cream made from mascarpone cheese, eggs, sugar and more booze and finished with an extremely liberal dusting of unsweetened cocoa powder. Literally translated Tiramisù means pull-me-up or pick-me-up. It is a pick-me-up of considerable force, but one that shouldn’t impose or sit heavily. Rather it should delight and leave you wanting more more more.

After gelato – which isn’t really a pudding, more a way of life – Tiramisù is (probablyItaly’s most popular and ubiquitous dolce! You’ d be hard pressed to find a restaurant or trattoria that doesn’t have a vast cocoa dredged tray (to be served in much the same way as lasagna) or a cluster of individual Tiramisù in their fridge. It is however a relatively recent invention. Apparently – and who I am to doubt it – the original was created in the 1970’s at the restaurant Le Beccherie in Treviso. The idea caught on, and today there are as many recipes, tips and Tiramisù secrets as there are Tiramisù cooks.

I’m no native, but I’ve eaten my fair share of good, indifferent and downright bad slices, pots and glasses of Tiramisù.  Two of the good ones were in fact eaten in my neighbourhood: Testaccio. One, a properly boozy, well dusted, neat, squat bowlful, at Perilli. The other, an altogether more chaotic, tumbling affair served al bicchiere at the osteria built into a hill of broken pots: Flaviovalevodetto. Purists may need to look away, my recipe is a muddle of both these fine pick-me-ups along with a healthy splash of advice from Francesca, Russell Norman, a sweet guy called Josh I met on a tour and a woman I bumped into on the 30 bus.

Begin as you do your day, by making coffee: a strong, dark espresso. You need 150 ml for the Tiramisù, so make 200 ml and inhale a double. While the coffee is cooling, make your cream by gently whisking together the egg yolks with some of the sugar and a good glug of Marsala wine before adding the mascarpone and the mounted egg whites. Set the cream aside. Now stir the rest of the sugar and the rum to the warm coffee. From here on it’s all about assembly. I work one glass at a time.

Now I’m going to be long-winded – which is nothing new I know – because it matters. For each glass you will use two biscuits. Submerge a biscuit in the coffee mixture until it is sodden but not collapsing. Gently break the biscuit in two and tuck half in the base of the glass. Spoon over a tablespoon of your cream before placing the other half of the biscuit gently on top and covering it with another spoonful of cream. Using a fine sieve dust the surface with cocoa powder. Take another biscuit, dunk it in the cream and eat it. Take another biscuit and soak it, again break it in half and then place both halves side by side on top of the coaca dusted cream. Cover the surface with more cream. Repeat this process with the other 5 glasses. Store the glasses in the fridge for at least 8 hours, at least, so they are absolutely set. Before serving dust the surface of each pot very liberally with more cocoa powder. Eat.

I’m not sure why, but Tiramisù tastes better when eaten from a glass! Ideally a stout tumbler. The modest depth and sloping sides provide a perfect vessel for the six graduating layers (sponge, cream, sponge, cream, sponge, cream.) Actually nine layers if you include the cocoa, which can be sprinkled on top of each of the three layers of cream. A glass tumbler is also the perfect way to both display your imperfect layers and contain the inevitable chaos as you plunge your teaspoon down to the bottom of the glass in order to get a perfect spoonful. The perfect spoonful being: a soft clot of coffee and rum soaked sponge, a nice blob of pale, quivering cream, a good dusting of cocoa and just a little of the coffee and rum pond at the bottom of the glass.  Are you still with me? No! Maybe you need a shot of Tiramisù?

Notes. The espresso should be strong and freshly brewed. The Rum and Marsala needn’t be particularly fine, but obviously not rough-as-hell. That said, better quality booze makes for a finer pick-me-up. If you can’t find Marsala then you can replace it with a tablespoon of Rum. Mascarpone is a soft, rich cream cheese made by curdling thick cream with citric acid. It is lactic loveliness itself. If you have never used it before, I suggest you start now, with this recipe.

I am indebted to Russell Norman for his Tiramisù making technique in his super-stupendous book Polpo! By dipping each biscuit individually in the coffee and rum mixture you ensure each one is well soaked but not too sodden. His instructions for how to break and layer the biscuits  – again purists may need to look away – are great so I have included them almost word-for-word. Now if you’ll excuse me I’m feeling a little jaded! I think I might just need a little something to pick-me-up. Wheatgrass, I mean really!

Tiramisù

Inspired by Tiramisù at Perilli and Flaviovalevodetto in Testaccio. Adapted from Polpo with advice from Francesca, Josh and a nice woman at the bus stop.

Makes 6 glasses (Ideally 150 ml Duralex tumblers)

  • 150 ml strong, warm espresso coffee
  • 2 tbsp dark rum or brandy
  • 130g caster sugar
  • 12 Savoiardi biscuits /sponge fingers
  • 3 eggs
  • 250 ml mascarpone
  • 80ml Marsala
  • excellent cocoa powder for dusting liberally

Mix the warm espresso coffee with the rum and 50 g of sugar and stir until the sugar has dissolved.

Separate the eggs – yolks in one bowl, whites in another.  Add the Marsala and the remaining 80 g of sugar to the egg yolks and whisk until the mixture is light and fluffy before adding the mascarpone and stirring it in carefully. Whisk the egg whites until they form stiff peaks. Gently but firmly fold the egg whites into the yolk mixture with a metal spoon.

For each glass you will use two biscuits. Submerge a biscuit in the coffee mixture until it is sodden but not collapsing. Gently break the biscuit in two and tuck half in the base of the glass. Spoon over a tablespoon of your cream before placing the other half of the biscuit gently on top and covering it with another spoonful of cream. Using a fine sieve dust the surface with cocoa powder. Take another biscuit, soak it, again break it in half and then place both halves side by side on top of the coaca dusted cream. Cover the surface with more cream.

Repeat this process with the other 5 glasses. Store the glasses in the fridge for at least 8 hours, so they are absolutely set. Before serving dust the surface of each pot very liberally with more cocoa powder. Eat.

52 Comments

Filed under cream, Eating In Testaccio, food, In praise of, Puddings, rachel eats Italy, Rachel's Diary, recipes

Oh I do like

…to be beside the seaside, oh I do like a sardine for my tea, oh I do like to roll my spuds in may-on-naise, and some fine green sauce, Tiddely-om-pom-pom! 

My Dad was 70 on Saturday and so, agreeing a week of merrymaking was in order, we are all – all being the celebrated one, Mum, my brother Ben, Kate, their little boy Stanley, my sister Rosie, Paul, their little girl Beattie, Luca and I – staying in a farmhouse in Penare in Southwest Cornwall. Even the pretty persistent rain hasn’t dampened our spirits (actually that’s a lie, it drenched our spirits on Wednesday, thank god for the fudge) or appreciation of the pure loveliness of this part of England.

Secluded, seductive wood-fringed pebble beeches and tiny, unspoiled coves punctuate the undulating coastline. Serpentine cliffs provide a craggy and fierce backdrop to white-sand beaches and the turquoise ocean. Vast gorse and heather covered moorlands are dotted with hairy buttercups and grazing ponies. There are quaint shops in every town, village and hamlet whose sole purpose is selling clotted cream fudge. The ratio of pubs to people is excellent. Dark-green pastures and lush, often magnificent gardens thrive and thrill in Cornwall’s unique damp, warm and almost tropical micro climate.

We’ve been threading our way through leafy lanes over babbling brooks (Really! proper bona fide babbling brooks) in search of tiny fishing villages where we take alternating gulps of salty sea air and local beer. We’ve been to Lizard lighthouse, Roskilly ice-cream farm, Helford, Kynance cove, Gillan cove (where we happened upon a keg of beer on the beach with a note attached inviting us to help ourselves) and St Ives, which is, despite the crowds, twee shops and nostalgia for its artistic heyday, as luminous and lovely as the art it inspired.

We’ve eaten well, Cornish crab, whitebait with proper tartare sauce, hake baked with potatoes, almost perfect fish and chips, local lamb with new potatoes, Cornish yarg, Cornish blue, broad beans, butter lettuce and curly kale from the local allotments, raspberries with sugar and thick, yellow clotted cream, sea-salt and caramel ice-cream (that rivalled anything from my favourite gelateria in Rome), copious quantities of clotted cream fudge, treacle tart, gooseberry fool, gooseberry tart and on Tuesday evening sardines.

My brother Ben undertook the fishy investigations and arranged to pick up 18 freshly caught sardines from the Cadgwith Fishseller. I’m not sure we should have driven down to this exquisite tiny end-of-the-world fishing village wedged into a cleft in the silver-grey rock. But we did. ‘Bloody tourists‘ a local (a crusty old sea-dog no less) snarled as we snaked the car back up the long and winding road with our spankingly fresh fish.

This post should be tagged Bencooks as my brother took charge of both cleaning the sardines – slitting along the bottom of each fish from the throat to the rear vent, then pulling out the innards and rinsing the inside of the fish – and then cooking them – perfectly it must be said, charred on the outside, tender within – on the BBQ. He also made mayonnaise, by hand, whilst sipping locally brewed, optimistically named doombar beer.

I thought I’d already written about making mayonnaise, I’ve certainly rattled on about how much I like this glorious, creamy, silky- smooth ointment of egg yolks, oil and lemon juice, a home-made concoction incomparable to even the smartest commercially produced jar full . But having trawled backwards through my sporadic posts (my shoddy index of recipes was no help) it appears I haven’t. This then, seems like an opportune moment.

I avoided making mayonnaise for many years, believing it to be fiendishly difficult and liable to curdle, split or suffer some other terrible egg suspension/emulsion fate at any moment! Then one evening a few years ago, whilst leaning up against my friends kitchen counter, glass in hand, my tongue a-wagging, she whipped up some mayonnaise. Just like that. No fuss, no palava, no curdling. I peered into her bowl of glorious yellow ointment, ‘What was her secret?’ I whispered in case I really was mayonnaise jinxed and my voice split her master bowl. She looked bemused. There was, as far as she was concerned, no secret and certainly no reason for mayonnaise anxiety (which is rather like pastry and custard anxiety only worse.) Making mayonnaise was, with sound advice and practice, a pretty straightforward affair.

And so the advice: eggs at room temperature, a heavy bowl which doesn’t slide all over the counter, a small whisk, adding the oil (a mixture of groundnut and olive oil) very very slowly, whisking energetically between each addition and – the vital bit – practice. Lots and lots of practice, so you – and I know this might sound pretentious – learn feel the moment when the yolk and oil transform, seize really into an ointment, when the speed you add the oil is instinctive, when the texture feels right – feels like mayonnaise. And if it does split? Pour yourself a glass of wine and then add a drop of boiling water to the mixture. If that doesn’t work start again with another egg yolk in a clean bowl. Beat the yolk and then slowly whisk in the curdled mixture.

But enough talk of curdling, let the whisking begin.

mayonnaise

  • 2 egg yolks (at room temperature)
  • salt
  • 225 ml groundnut oil
  • 75 ml extra virgin olive oil
  • juice of half a lemon or dab of Dijon mustard

In a heavy bowl (which doesn’t require too much effort or holding to keep it firm) start whisking the egg yolks with a generous pinch of salt.

After a minutes, when the yolks are thick and sticky, start adding the groundnut oil very gradually – by very gradually I mean drop by drop and then a very thin stream. Do not rush and keep whisking as you add the oil.

Keep adding the oil until the mayonnaise seizes into a very thick ointment, at this point you can relax and add the groundnut oil in a slightly thicker stream.

When you have added all the groundnut oil, add the extra virgin olive oil (again in a thin stream) and keep whisking until you have a smooth, silky and firm mayonnaise. You may not need to add all the olive oil. Add a few drops of lemon juice or a dab of mustard, whisk, taste and then, if necessary a few drops/dab more. Add salt as you like.

Dollop on Tiddely-om-pom-pom!.

May I recommend serving your home-made mayonnaise with freshly grilled sardines, waxy new potatoes, a spoonful of salsa verde and a slice of lemon. And for pudding (our tea this afternoon, my niece Bea was beside herself with cream induced excitement) raspberries with sugar and Cornish clotted cream. I hope you are having a good summer.

24 Comments

Filed under Eggs, fish, food, In praise of, olive oil, Rachel's Diary, recipes

In praise of salt cod

I didn’t really know anything about salt cod, apart from the obvious cod-that- is-preserved-in-salt, until I moved to Italy, which is five years ago now, time it seems does fly.

I had seen salt cod in London, stiff, salt crusted, mysterious and rather foreign behind the glass counters of Portuguese, Spanish and Italian delicatessens, and our local Jamaican minimarket in Hackney – known affectionately as the bong – often had a heap of ‘saltfish’. But I have to admit I screwed my face up, declared it peculiar, quite ugly, odd smelling and then thought no more about it.

I must have been in Rome about a year when it finally dawned on me; the Baccalà al’ agro dolce I’d eaten and loved in our local trattoria (Bucatino in Via luca della Robbia, a rowdy, boisterously good, no-nonsense Roman eatery thats worth making a note of for your next trip to Rome); the sublime filetti di baccalà, plump fish fillets, battered and deep fried from the venerable fry shop of the same name just off Campo de ‘Fiori (another note worthy address); the curious white fillets of baccalà desalinating in the vast water-filled tubs standing brim full outside shops and market stalls; the scent of baccalà that curled up the communal staircase on Fridays, the traditional day to eat fish in Rome, they were all salt cod. Baccalà was not – as I first thought – simply cod, it was salt cod. The curious and delicious fish I’d fallen in love with in Rome was the mysterious and peculiar specimen I had turned my nose up at for all those years.

For those of you who don’t know, salt cod – the Italian Baccalà,  Spanish bacalao, Portuguese bacalhau and French morue – is fresh codfish which has been split lengthways, heavily salted and then partially dried to preserve it. The best salt cod comes from the Lofoten Isles in Norway where a whole industry and way of life has grown up around the fishing, salting and drying of cod. Salt cod has a long and complicated history, it dates back to medieval times and the earliest methods of preserving food under salt. To really understand the deep significance of salt cod would be to really understand the history of codfish, of salt, of international trade and politics; the history and power of the Roman catholic church and it’s days of abstinence; the discovery, exploration and exploitation of the new world; the dark story of slavery and colonisation. Mark Kurlansky tells this story beautifully in his book Cod: A biography of the fish that changed the world.

Back in Rome, having discovered that I didn’t just like but adored salt cod, I began buying it. Vincenzo was most supportive of my experimentation ‘va benissimo‘ he said ‘è la mia pesce preferita (favourite fish)‘ and did that rather quaint Italian gesture of food approval, the one where you put your index finger to your cheek and twist.

Now, if the first hurdle with salt cod is it’s odd appearance and particular smell, the second hurdle is the soaking, ah yes, the soaking. Salt cod can only be used after having been soaked in frequent changes of fresh water for at least 18 hours in order to soften the flesh and remove the salt, umm, roll eyes. And there’s more, a third hurdle, mastering the soaking, it takes practice, too short and the salt cod is tough as old boots and very salty, too long and it’s tasteless and wooly, rather like a wet jumper. Are you still with me? This process and practice puts salt cod firmly in the slow food category, but that’s a good thing isn’t it ? Aren’t we all trying to embrace more slow food ?  Yes, soaking is a bit of a fuss, especially the first time, but then you discover the intriguingly delicious nature of salt cod and the mild palava of soaking feels utterly worthwhile.

Salt cod has many of the characteristics of fresh cod, large, soft flakes of succulent, opaque flesh which like all good fish, reeks of the sea. It also has other qualities, an extraordinary texture from the salting, the flesh is firmer and has slightly chewy, toothsome quality, soaked properly salt cod is beautifully seasoned with a pleasingly pungent taste.

The Italians, like the Portuguese and the Spanish are passionate enthusiasts of salt cod and have evolved marvelous ways to cook it. Baccalà al’agro dolce is salt cod, bright with tomatoes, cooked in wine and vinegar moderated with sugar and flavoured with red pepper, pine nuts and sultana’s; Baccalà alla pizzaiola from Naples is salt cod covered with tomatoes, breadcrumbs, capers, plenty of oregano and baked in the oven; the delicious Baccalà all vientina, salt cod on a bed of onions slowly softened in olive oil, covered with milk and then baked in a very low oven for about two hours; Filetti di baccalà, which I have already mentioned, plump pieces of salt cod, dipped in batter, fried until crusty-coated outside and succulent within.

There are dozens of salt cod recipes I would like to tell you about – many of them come from Vincenzo’s Mum Carmela who is a quiet master of soaking and cooking baccalà – but I fear this post is starting to feel as long as the soaking required for a big fat piece of salt cod. Therefore, I have chosen just one, my favourite. Its not just my favourite recipe for baccalà, it’s an all time favourite recipe and one of my preferred things to eat, brandade di morue.


Brandade di morue is a heavenly invention, a creamy white purèe of salt cod, potato, olive oil and milk flavoured with lemon juice and garlic. It’s a speciality of the city of Nimes in the Languedoc province of France called but the origins of this recipe are probably Italian as it is very similar to the Venetian baccalà mantecata as described by the wonderful Gillian Riley.

‘Soaked baccalà is pounded with a little garlic and olive oil in a pestle and mortar to make a smooth thick paste; this is transferred to a pot and beaten with a wooden spoon, gradually adding a light olive oil drop by drop until the fish has taken up what it can handle, which can sometimes be diluted in the process with warm milk, to make a light and pungent cream’

This is one of our favourite suppers, we open a bottle of Pieropan Soave, tip some black olives in a bowl, make a big pile of toast or fry little triangles of bread in olive oil, then we sit scooping up the warm, creamy pureè and telling each other how much we like brandade.

Salt cod can seem difficult to find, have patience, it is probably hiding behind the counter at your local Portuguese, Spanish or Italian delicatessen. Look for a nice piece of cod from a center cut where the fish is thickest and at its most succulent.

I’ve got into the habit, as is so often the case, of following Simon Hopkinson’s recipe for brandade di morue because it works so beautifully.

Brandade de Morue or cream of salt cod

Adapted from Simon Hopkinson’s Roast chicken and other stories

  • A large potato (roughly 175g /6 oz) peeled and cut into large chunks
  • salt
  • 200ml/7fl oz good quality olive oil
  • 200ml/7 fl oz whole milk
  • 3 cloves garlic peeled and crushed
  • 450g/1llb salt cod fillet soaked, drained and boned
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • black pepper

Boil the potato in salted water until cooked, drain ( I put the potato back in the empty pan and back on a low flame for a few seconds so the water still clinging to the potato evaporates.) mash, rice or mouli the potato while it is still hot and then keep it warm.

Put the milk and crushed garlic in small pan over a low flame and very gently heat until only just warm but not hot.

Heat the olive oil gently in a small pan, it must remain tepid or the oil will disintegrate and ruin the whole preparation

Put the cod in a saucepan of cold water, bring to the boil, then switch of the heat. leave for 5 minutes, then using a slotted spoon remove the cod to a plate. Take off the skin and pick out any bones, flake the fish and then put it in a food processor.

With the motor running, alternately add the olive oil and the garlicky milk until you have a thick a thick, gloopy paste the consistency of thick cream. This can be done by hand, crushing the fish with the back of a wooden spoon and then adding the oil and milk very gradually and alternately and stirring vigorously with great patience and considerable energy.

Turn the mixture into a bowl and then beat in the mashed potato using a wooden spoon, not too much or the mixture will go Gluey. Stir in the lemon juice and black pepper, taste, add salt if necessary.

Transfer to a serving dish or shallow bowl and then serve with black olives, plenty of toasted country bread (or triangles of bread fried in olive oil) and wedges of lemon.

23 Comments

Filed under fish, In praise of, olive oil, patè and terrines, rachel eats Italy, recipes