Category Archives: lamb

polish and scrub

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After two unsuccessful ventures, we finally found the marble man. He was in fact as promised, at the wrong end of Lungotevere Testaccio. The very endafter the Romany camp, behind an intimidating gate, tucked under the railway bridge. A machine screeched and then stopped abruptly as we entered the marble flanked workshop. The marmista turnedpulled down his goggles and stared hard. ‘We’ve been sent by Emanuela at Testaccio market‘ I garbled. At which suspicion faded into something cordial. Five minutes, a sketch, a sum and some marble stroking later and we laid a crisp deposit on the dusty workbench. ‘Lunedi’ he promised before lifting back his goggles and turning his attention to a sheet of pale grey marble streaked with deep blue veins.

A week later and my carrara marble table top is balanced, temporarily, on the odd pine table that came with the flat. The pine table is bigger, so it’s peeping out like a Tom.  I’m told there is a blacksmith who could make me a base near Monte Testaccio, but until we can get to the bottom of his idiosyncratic working hours, the balancing act and peeping will continue. I still amazed we got the marble back in one piece, driving as we did in an almost unsuspended car through Roman traffic.  It was only as we veered from Via Marmorata into Via Galvani that I noted the significance: Via Marmorata is called as such because it was the route along which enormous quantities of marble (marmo) passed into Rome in Antiquity. Two thousand years later and we too had passed along the marble route bearing marble. I am ridiculously happy with my 60 x 100 slab and keep polishing it.

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I have also been scrubbing. Not the marble obviously, nor the floor, even though it could do with a bloody good clean. I’ve been scrubbing new potatoes and top and tailing green beans, lots of them, in order to make Patate e fagiolini condite. Which I could translate as potato and green bean salad. Which it isn’t. Or is it? I’m not familiar with salad law. Eitherway, I prefer the literal translation – potatoes and green beans dressed. Simply dressed obviously, after all it’s 30° and the last thing we want is fussy or complicated. I’ve also been pulling leaves from the bedraggled mint plant that’s – despite my neglect and the searing heat – hanging on for mint life on the balcony. Mint, as we know, makes a good bedfellow for both potatoes and beans. But more about that in a paragraph.

This is barely a recipe. It is however a nice assembly and one of my favorites at the moment, just so, beside a lamb chop, next to a hard-boiled egg and some tuna, under a slice of pure white young sheep’s cheese such as primo sale. You need best, properly waxy new potatoes, ideally large ones that can be boiled in their skins and then peeled once cool enough to handle. You also need fine green beans: pert, sweet and nutty, salt and good extra virgin olive oil. Mint or vinegar is optional.

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There are five things to remember. Scrub but don’t peel the potatoes, then boil them whole. Cook the beans in well-salted fast-boiling water until they are tender with just the slightest bite but no absolutely no squeak. Tear the mint into tiny pieces with your fingers. Dress the vegetables while they are still warm with a hefty pinch of salt – launched from high above so evenly dispersed – and enough extra virgin olive oil to make a dietitian bristle and each chunk and bean glisten. Let your dressed vegetables sit – in a cool place but not the fridge – for a while before serving.

It should be a well-dressed tumble, the chunks of potatoes distinct but breaking gently at the edges, so blurring everything slightly. For me the optional mint – I adore the way mint manages to be both bright and moody in the same moment – is vital.  It lends something cool and herbal and renders a dish made with Italian ingredients on a humid and tempestuous Tuesday in Rome decidedly English and familiar. I don’t usually add vinegar. If I do, I don’t add mint and it’s a dash of red wine vinegar, sharp and pertinent. In my opinion balsamic vinegar – which generally seems to be both over and misused these days – isn’t right here. You may disagree.

A reminder that good ingredients, well-prepared, well-paired, well-dressed and served at the right temperature (that is just warm) are delicious.

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Patate e fagiolini condite  Potatoes and green beans (dressed)

Inspired by a comment from a Christine. Advice, as usual, from Jane Grigson.

  • 4 large waxy potatoes or many little ones
  • 500 g fine green beans
  • a few small fresh mint leaves
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • salt
  • red wine vinegar (if you like)

Scrub the potatoes and top and tail the beans.

Put the whole, scrubbed potatoes in a large pan, cover them with cold water, add salt and then bring the pan to the boil. Reduce to a lively simmer and cook the potatoes until they are tender to the point of a knife.

Tip the beans into a large pan half-full of salted water at a rolling boil and boil them uncovered hard and briefly – eight minutes should do the trick – until they are tender but still with the slightest bite. Drain the beans.

Wait until the beans and potatoes are cool enough to handle but still warm. Put the beans in large bowl. Using a sharp knife pare away the potato skin and then roughly chop and break the potato over the beans. Tear the mint leaves into the bowl. Sprinkle generously with salt and then pour over some olive oil and the vinegar if you are using it. Use your hands to gently turn and mix the ingredients. Taste and add more salt and olive oil if necessary. Leave to sit for at least 30 minutes before serving. Turn again before serving.

A suggestion.

Patate e fagiolini condite are delicious served with grilled lamb. Romans call young lamb cutlets cooked briefly so burnished outside but still pale pink and tender within: costolette di abbachio alla scottadito or simply abbachio a scottadito. Literally translated this means lamb cutlets to burn your fingers, reminding you they should be eaten as soon as possible from the grill or coals – so blisteringly hot – with your fingers.

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Filed under Beans and pulses, food, lamb, potatoes, Rachel's Diary, summer food, vegetables

Reciprocal roasting

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Of course I thought Rome was glorious, but I didn’t want to stay. A month, three at most, then I’d take a train back to Sicily, finish the clockwise journey I’d interrupted, before moving even further southwards-somewhere. Then about halfway through that first reluctant month, April 2005 to be precise, urged by my architect friend Joanna, we visited possibly the most Roman of Roman quarters: Testaccio

Approaching Testaccio for the first time as we did by bus, lurching from Lungotevere into via Marmorata then swinging sharply into Via G. Branca, I was caught off guard. Linear and grid-like, the blocks of undistinguished looking 19th-century buildings seemed hard, passionless even, after the delectable warren of terra-cotta hued medieval alleys, the exhilarating sprawl of imperial ruins and the curves, courtyards and staircases of Borromini we’d been lost in.

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Disoriented, we stepped off the bus into broad and busy Via G. Branca. Joanna was already engaged, her eyes darting eagerly, words like ‘Public housing, elevations, detail, brickwork, internal courtyard, community, fascinating’ tumbling from her lips. We walked, wandered really – the best way and invariably a happy adventure in Rome – down tree-lined vie, past tenement blocks and clusters of chattering signore, peering into vast internal courtyards, sneaking up well ventilated stairwells, pressing our noses up against the frosted glass windows of local tratorrie, all the time Joanna mumbling and making notes.

The hard lines seemed to soften and the streets – although always neatly aligned – narrowed and relaxed as we moved into the heart of Testaccio. We watched a wicker basket being lowered from a fifth floor window, shopping deposited within, before the basket was hauled back up and swallowed by lace curtains. Just as our eyes were becoming accustomed to the distinguished late 19th century architecture, four arches of an ancient edifice, as if forlorn giants, loomed up before us. We gazed upwards at the sculpture of a winged god punching out an innocent bull atop the defunct slaughter-house and downwards at the expanse of cobble stones between which were wedged innumerable cigarette butts. We were jostled and elbowed, awkward tourists we, by the commotion and the rowdy market life of Testaccio. We sat at one of the small round tables outside Zia Elena and drank ill-timed cappuccini while Joanna confirmed what I was starting to suspect, Testaccio was charismatic and captivating, rudely real and remarkable, that I should find a flat here.

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I’m still here of course. Once that English girl, now very much (and quite happily) that English woman, less idealistic and romantic but no less enamoured with my adopted home. My mum is visiting this week and at this very moment pushing my small boy, a half Testaccino, around the same streets Joanna and I pounded. Meanwhile I sit here at my red table looking out onto the cavernous courtyard of my building, which just happens to be the first building I noted as the bus swerved into Testaccio almost eight years ago to the day.

Lately I’ve been having nice conversations about why I came to Rome, why I stayed and why I cook and write in the way I do. My answer is almost invariably, Testaccio. I stayed in Rome even though I’d no intention of doing so because of Testaccio, a quarter with an identity and character stronger than anyone I know. Of course I’d cook wherever I was, but I cook in the way I do because I’m here and influenced by the very particular cooking of this very particular area, by the local market and the shops I visit every day. Before you roll your eyes at this, I should note that many of the shops and most certainly the market itself – which has recently moved – are a far cry from any rustic, whimsical or mediterranean idyll you might imagine, for although charming, they are straightforward, traditional, ordinary.

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Straightforward, traditional, ordinary, such pleasing words and appropriate ones too when it comes to describing Roman food. Another thing that’s kept coming up in our conversations this week, is how aspects of Roman food have much in common with northern English food, the food my parents were raised on and an important part of my kitchen heritage. Both are straightforward, traditional, ordinary. I like ordinary. Homely cooking rooted in tradition. Cooking that makes good use of lesser cuts which require thought, resourcefulness and skill if they are to be transformed into something sustaining and satisfying. The enterprising use of the other parts of the animal, parts that would otherwise be wastefully and scornfully discarded: tripe, tails, feet, sweetbreads, liver, lungs (don’t squirm they are absolutely delicious if cooked well.) There is a nice symmetry for me that the iconic Roman dish: Coda alla vaccinara, braised ox tail with celery, bears an uncanny resemblance to a Lancastrian dish, a taste of my childhood and culinary heritage: ox tail stew.

I am waiting to make Coda  alla vaccinara with Leonardo so that was out. We considered boiled beef, one of my favourites and another dish with which to observe this Roman / northern English connection – cooking for me is all about making connections. Do you know the recipe I have for Roman Lesso is almost identical to the recipe for boiled beef and carrots my northern family would make? Then the sun came out and the discussions turned to spring, Easter, and celebratory lunches in both Rome and Manchester. Not that it was Sunday. Mum reminisced and I ruminated while we walked from my flat in via Marmorata to the market. By the time we reached my butcher we had decided: roast lamb with potatoes on Wednesday it would be.

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Alice would have roasted half a leg or half a shoulder, English lamb being older, bolder and larger. In Rome the lamb roasted with potatoes is – more often than not – abbacchio or suckling lamb. A small, slim leg with ribs and kidneys attached is perfumed with fresh rosemary and garlic, then cooked in slow oven with pieces of potato anointed with strutto (lard) or olive oil until the potatoes are golden and crisp, the meat tender and falling from the bone.

We English are mocked for our plate piling and tempestuous sea of gravy, especially on Sundays. My Granny Alice, my mum’s mum and my second namesake, was not a fan of such plate chaos. She would have served her lamb as they do in Rome, a nice slice or two, beside it a couple of burnished potatoes, over it a spoonful of the juices from the bottom of the pan.

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I’m almost certain you have your own recipe for roast lamb with potatoes, this post is nothing more than a long-winded reminder. Below is the way I cook lamb, that is: in a rather Roman manner with distinctly British sensibilities. On Easter Sunday we will start with fave e pecorino followed by a modest slice of lasagne ai carciofi and then, for secondo, this simply roasted lamb. We will then adopt somnolent postures on the nearest soft furnishing, cover our faces with the Observer and doze.

Abbachio al forno con le patate    Roast lamb with potatoes

Adapted from the recipe in La Cucina Romana by Roberta e Rosa D’Ancona and Jane Grigson’s recipe in English food and Simon Hopkinson’s sage advice.

serves 4

  • 2 kg very young, lamb. Ideally leg with ribs and kidneys
  • lard or extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • several sprigs of fresh rosemary
  • salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 1k g potatoes

In Rome they slash the leg of lamb deeply (but not cutting through entirely) creating thick slices.

Lay the lamb in a roasting tin large enough to accommodate it with the potatoes. Peel and slice the garlic and break the rosemary into small sprigs. Rub your hands with lard or olive oil and then massage the lamb inserting the slivers of garlic and sprigs into the slashes as you go. By the time you’ve finished the lamb should be glistening and scented with garlic and rosemary.

Smear a little lard or oil on the base of the tin and then lay the leg skin side down. Season with salt and black pepper leave to rest for 30 minutes or so.

Set the oven to 180° / 350F.

Peel the potatoes and cut them into quarters, rub them with lard or olive oil (hands are best) and then arrange them around the lamb. Season the potatoes with a little salt.

Slide the lamb into the oven. Cook for about an hour – basting every so often and turning the leg twice – or until the meat is very tender when prodded with a fork. Very young lamb might need less, older lamb more. Some people like to pour a glass of white wine over the lamb half way through the cooking time, In this case I don’t

Allow the meat to rest, covered loosely with foil, for at least 10 minutes before serving in thick slices with a potato or two and a spoonful of the sticky juices from the bottom of the pan.

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Filed under Eating In Testaccio, food, lamb, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes