Category Archives: odd posts

when it was march

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rocket and tomato salad, garlicky greens, bruschetta and mozzarella

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

a bit shallow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Farinata – chickpea flatbread

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

Adapted from a recipe by Gianfranco Vissani 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Red roots and leaves.

This Radicchio di Treviso; some ruby beetroot; a red cabbage which was more purple than red – ‘tyrian purple’ our friend announced, the colour of the imperial robes of roman emperors, which somehow made the lunch grander and might be useful for trivial pursuit one day; two red onions and lots of scarlet fleshed oranges. It has been a week of red roots, food, hands, tempers for an hour or so (mine, very petty, I blame the rain) and bay leaves,

Monday

My favourite, the radicchio di Treviso sitting at the top next to the chair, is a extraordinary leaf chicory from Teviso near Venice in northeast Italy that has alluring deep red leaves and very thick white veins. Radicchio di treviso has a bold character, it’s the epitome of a bitter-sweet leaf, with a warm, spicy peppery aftertaste. We don’t find it in Rome very often and when we do we usually eat it just so, as a flaming salad leaf. But occasionally, if I find more at the market, we bake it.

Baking softens the flavours of radicchio, taking some of the edge off the bitterness and encouraging its sweetness and it’s curious and distinct flavour. The leaves collapse and wither like old rags which sounds terrible, actually it’s quite charming. Well I think it is charming, but then I think the delicious insides of a baked aubergine, which look like an old dirty dishcloth slumped the colander, are charming!

We baked two of the four bulbs to go beside a very plain risotto for lunch on Monday, a delcious combination. I cut each long bulb in quarters lengthways, then tucked the eight wedges into a well oiled oven dish. Salt and freshly ground black pepper, more olive oil and a bay leaf, before I covered the dish tightly with tin foil and baked it for about 30 minutes in a medium oven.

Tuesday

I bought beetroot, a small red cabbage and some really big, plump, Sicilian salted capers to make a Fergus Henderson’s Red salad.

I have been promising myself this ever since I read Ruth Reichl’s post back in December, the ‘kind of deconstructed borscht.’ It is a most striking scarlet salad of raw grated beetroot, red onion, red cabbage and caper dressing which you top with a big blob of creme fraiche. You then proceed to jumble the whole thing up into a delicious pink mess.

I misplaced the creme fraiche ignoring maybe one the most wonderful recipe instruction I have ever read – nustle your blob of crème fraîche as if the two ingredients were good friends, not on top of each other as if they were lovers.

A red salad.

2 raw beetroot, peeled and finely grated
¼ raw red cabbage with its core cut out, very finely sliced
1 small red onion, peeled, cut in half from top to bottom and finely sliced
6 healthy dollops of crème fraîche

Dressing
Healthy splashes of extra virgin olive oil
A little gesture of balsamic vinegar or red wine vinegar
A small handful of extra-fine capers
Sea salt and black pepper

Mix everything together for the dressing. Toss all your raw red vegetables in the dressing, then on six plates place a bushel of this red mixture. Next to this, nustle your blob of crème fraîche as if the two ingredients were good friends, not on top of each other as if they were lovers. A very striking salad ready for the eater to mess up.

I think will be making this salad alot, it will be delicious with pickled herrings and vodka.

Thursday

I must admit that I still am extremely fond of beetroot that come in families of four. Ones that have been boiled to near death and preserved in a rather solid, surprisingly heavy, thick moulded plastic vacuum pack. Do you know the ones? My feelings are largely sentimental, this was the beetroot my grandma Roddy used to buy in west yorkshire when we were young. She would cut each ruby ball in very thick slices and then douse them with lots of very strong English malt vinegar and serve it for tea with corned beef. We would shudder, eat and laugh at our very very red mouths and beetroot juice speckled clothes.

I am however even fonder of slightly shriveled, sweet, intensely flavoured, roasted beetroot with garlic and bay leaves.

I first had this roasted beetroot when I worked as a waitress at the Duke of Cambridge pub and it’s sister pub the Crown in London. There was a fantastic chef called Caroline who would roast vast trays of these wonderful English organic beetroot. Each bulb was cut in two, put face down in a very well oiled baking tray with lots of whole but squashed cloves of garlic, some bay leaves and probably more olive oil. The tray was covered snugly with tin foil and then put in a hot oven for about 50 minutes when the bulbs are very tender to the point of a knife. Caroline would serve the beetroot with a dressing made from olive oil, balsamic vinegar and the soft baked garlic squeezed from the skin.

I got very red hands paring away the skin from the beetroot for lunch, plastic gloves would have been sensible but of course I didn’t have any. I separated another head of raddichio into curls and hard-boiled four eggs before arranging everything on a big plate along with the garlic from the roasted beetroot.

I made mayonnaise too – following Elizabeth Davids recipe – for the first time in ages and promised myself I will make it more often. I stirred a spoonful of very hot horseradish in the creme fraiche and cut the sour dough bread from the bakery Passi.

Another deconstructed lunch which required a certain amount of messing up, mayonnaise on eggs, creme fraiche on the beetroot, more mayonnaise scooped up in the curl of the radicchio, garlic squeezed out of its skin, everything squashed on the bread, more olive oil ( I was sorry we didn’t have any sweet-cured herring fillets, next time!). A rather mad looking plateful by the end, all pink and cream coloured and very very tasty.

Note

I had hoped to have finished a post about the rabbit I cooked last weekend by today……. but I haven’t, which is rather frustrating, hence this rather ad hoc, bits and pieces red week post……..Oh yes, maybe we are thinking the same thing, if you prefer to pet rather than eat rabbit you will probably want to ignore my next post. Have a good weekend.

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Filed under food, odd posts, olive oil, Rachel's Diary, recipes, salads, vegetables

It’s all about pasta.

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Yep, its all about pasta, and it’s a serious business for this Sicilian. Nothing fancy mind, pasta burro e parmigiano, spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino. pasta al pomodoro crudo, spaghetti alla bottarga !! just whats needed every day, EVERY DAY.

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