Category Archives: pasta and rice

where it comes from

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There was a particular moment as we drove back down the rough road from the stalls to the agriturismo for lunch. Against a backdrop of flint-grey mountain and low mist was a tree covered in buds, under it a fast running steam flanked by green. My camera was in its bag, which was twisted around the mechanism under the seat. Shit. Yanking was not the solution. It was too late anyway, the van had turned to cross a ramp over the steam and pit its Mercedes wheels against a slope covered with mountain coloured gravel.

There were plenty of particular moments last Sunday, some I caught with my camera, others I didn’t: mountains like giants either side of the narrow road, hundreds of sheep bolting around us, goats standing on sheep, the steam rising from a vat of almost ricotta. However it was the snapshot of a mountain, mist, tree, steam and green that stuck in my mind because it seemed to explain so much. It was like meeting a boyfriend’s parents for the first time. You understand the genetics: the gap in the teeth, the good metabolism, the nervous laugh. In that moment through a minivan window I understood something about the cheese I like to eat.

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My dad would have called Sunday a beanday, which is his way of describing a day trip that involves a bloody good lunch. The story goes that when they were first married my dad arranged a surprise trip for my mum to an open day at a historic factory called Beanlands, which had nothing whatsoever to do with beans. On arriving at the factory my mum was less than impressed. However she was slowly drawn into what turned out to be a fascinating if eccentric day of local history. Then there was lunch. From that day on, a day trip arranged by dad for mum was called a beanday. Later, with three kids pre-seatbelt sliding across the backseat of the mustard Rover 3500, there was chanting as we set off on a beanday. As we turned into teenagers, chanting turned into moaning, which may or may not have ended by the time we sat down to lunch. By the time we were old enough to chant again we had left home, which meant my parents were – happily –  back to beansdays for two.

In Rome a group of us have been on three beandays, which haven’t as yet involved beans, but aways involve food and then more food in the form of the good lunch. The first was south to Campania and a town called Grano to meet a man called Franco Pepe who makes pizza.  The second was east across the Apennines then down to the coast and a town called Scerni to meet a man called Luigi Di Lello who makes a salame called ventricina. The third – Sunday – was east into Abruzzo again, up and up into the mountains and a town called Scanno meet a man called Gregorio Rotolo who makes cheese.

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Actually we didn’t meet Gregorio. He was away, as he is every weekend, at a food and wine fair. Gregorio is a shepherd. During the week he works with his family, workers and pack of 40 white Pastori Maremmani sheepdogs tending to 1500 sheep, goats and cows high in the mountains. At the weekend he travels hard to promote and sell his cheese. At fairs he stands or sits (only occasionally dozing) behind a stall of his cheese: some wide and soft, others like big tear drops or stout ridged barrels the colour of sea-washed pebbles. He is a big man, as is his knife, the tip of which is pressed into the wooden board ready to cut slices of cheese with unnerving confidence. It was at fair of sorts in the old slaughterhouse in Testaccio I first encountered the man, his cheese and his knife. I tasted an aged pecorino, deep-yellow, crystalline with a sweet-sharp flavour that burrowed into my tongue. ‘Who is that man near the wine tasting’ I asked Francesca who brings her equally fine Abruzzese cheese to the farmers market each Sunday – a drive all the more impressive now we have done it. ‘Gregorio, mio zio‘ (my uncle)’ she replied. Francesca then went on to explain how they were an extended family of shepherds and cheese makers near Scanno on the edge of the Abruzzo national park. ‘You must visit‘ she said. ‘Then you will understand the cheese‘.

I guessed the girl who greeted us at the agriturismo was Francesca’s sister, so Gregorio’s niece, before she said so: the same brow and slant of a smile. She took us round to the room where her brother was about to finish the day’s cheese making. The white tiled room was small, clean, awash with whey and fuggy with milky steam. He had made Caciocavallo and Crescenza with cow’s milk. Pecorino made from sheep’s milk was sitting in perforated plastic baskets, alongside a cheese called Gregoriano. In metal vats whey from both milks was being re-cotto or re-cooked into ricotta. All the cheeses are made with their certified organic raw milk and rennet according to traditional methods. My camera lens steamed.

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Have you ever been in a vast animal stall? I mean really in? In the middle of hundreds of sheep? They dash and swerve away from you, sheep displacement, and their breath and fleece brushes your arms as they do. The goats look nonplussed, pissed off even that you have displaced the sheep they were standing on. The air is filled with bleats that resonate up to the rafters. I was struck by the wholesomeness of it all. I imagined so many sheep, lambs, goats and kids would stink, but they didn’t. Of course they smelt, but nothing really untoward: hay, beast, wood,  wool, proper manure. It felt thick and earthy. Fleeces were full, faces opinionated and healthy. I imagined this was what was good husbandry looks like. Outside in another vast enclosure were hundreds more sheep against a backdrop of mountains and mist. Once the mist lifts and spring really reaches this height the sheep will be free to roam on rock, to graze on grass and the dozens of wild herbs that grow in this area of national park.

I have often heard Abruzzo described as Forte e Gentile, strong and gentle. Forte and gentile was what – I imagined – I saw through the minivan window in that moment driving back. Mountain, mist, tree, steam and pasture, that snapshot seemed to sum up a strong, mysterious land. A land that if tended properly (and tenaciously) is generous to people and animals. Animals who then provide good milk that is turned into good cheese.

Lunch could have begun no other way. There was freshly made sheep’s milk ricotta that was almost grassy and wobbled tenderly, a soft, aromatic pecorino called Gregoriano, a cheese made from three milks, a decisive, aged caciocavollo that almost tasted of wine. My favourite was two-year pecorino that was almost gold in colour, sharp, insistent and tasted like bolting sheep. Stunning, This was the one I would take home. After the cheese came pasta: fluted ribbons with lamb ragu, ravioli with fresh ricotta, and potato gnocchi with the sauce made from melted Gregoriano cheese loosened by pasta cooking water (the secret is so often the pasta cooking water.) After the pasta came excellent meat that deserved better cooking, but we ate it none the less. Some of us finished with a digestivo made from a root called Gentiana that made my hairs stand on end.  There were 10 or so people working in the large, functional dining room and kitchen, the family resemblance was striking, as was the good, wholesome hospitality.

As we drove away from the Agriturismo the mist was starting to lift allowing new perspectives. Mountains in the distance capped with the last snow or darkly-cloaked with forest, a road sign warning of bears, a town perched impossibly, a burst of wild poppies giving way to a steep verge. A herd of cows brought the minivan to an almost standstill then sauntered past. I grabbed for my camera. The strap was twisted under the seat.

Bio Agriturismo Valle Scannese and Azienda Agricola Biologica di Gregorio Rotolo & C. Località Le Prata, 60738,  Scanno AQ, Italia.

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In Rome it is traditional to eat the first fresh broad beans (fave) with young pecorino Romano cheese, especially on the first of May. Having brought back a small barrel of Gregorio’s pecorino we had some of our first fave with that. It is a lovely companionable thing to do, podding and chiseling cheese together, and the combination of tender, waxy beans with the sharp cheese is a brilliant one.

Another celebration of spring, and something I seem to write about every year is Vignarola, A spring vegetables stew that can only be made for  a few weeks each year, when the last of the artichokes meet the first fresh peas, broad beans fave and spring onions at the market, It is one of my favorite things to eat, a true celebration of the changing seasons. There are of course as many versions of Vignarola as there are cooks. This is my version. I like vignarola with bread and some soft cheese, piled on garlic rubbed toast- I also like it stirred into pasta with grated pecorino cheese and just enough of the starchy pasta cooking water to bring it all together into slightly creamy whole. As I said, it is often all about the pasta cooking water. For me, this is a quintessential spring pasta dish.

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Tagliatelle with Vignarola and pecorino  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)
  • 500 g dried tagliatelle
  • freshly grated pecorino

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, tumbling whole. Let the vignarola rest. If you have one, Tip the vignarola into a wide, deep frying or sauté pan as it will be easier to mix with the pasta.

Bring a large pan of well-salted water to a fast boil, salt generously, stir and add pasta. Grate some pecorino (I’d say about 60g). Once the pasta is cooked, use tongs or a spider sieve to lift it into the vignarola (You want it to carry a little starchy pasta cooking water). Scatter over the cheese and toss everything together gently but firmly,. You want the cheese to melt and mix with the pasta cooking water to from a sort of cream which brings everything together – watch the edges of the pasta, you will see it happening. You might need to add a little more pasta cooking water and toss again. Divide between warm bowls and top with more freshly grated pecorino.

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Filed under Abruzzo, cheese, pasta and rice, rachel eats Italy, Rachel's Diary

indignant crumbs

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The problem with breadcrumbs, is that they are breadcrumbs. They like to gather in the rubber seal at the top of the fridge door, and in between the tiles, meaning I crunch as I move around the kitchen. Most days I make some sort of attempt at sweeping them up, but it always feels as if I am simply shunting them around our small, awkward kitchen in much the same way you do coins in a shove penny machine: hopelessly. ‘Mum ants are taking our bread‘ Luca said as we pressed our chins to the crummy, sticky floor (the problem with squeezing orange juice is orange juice) in search of a lost car the other day. He was right, under the sink a trail of ants were carrying crumbs towards a hole in the wall. ‘Hungry ants‘ said Luca. Helpful ants I thought.

Our crummy kitchen isn’t just the result of everyday bread cutting and eating – although that plays a part, we are a messy lot. It is a result of cooking more and more with breadcrumbs, which means we are getting better and better at reducing old bread into various sorts of crumbs, in various ways, ready for whatever.

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This isn’t an entirely new thing, while I can be wasteful, I have alway been good at using up old bread. In England this mostly meant toast and more toast, then if I got my act together bread and butter pudding or crumbs for bread sauce (I adore bread sauce). Living in Rome with a Sicilian has meant that I have discovered so many ways with breadcrumbs that they have become a way of life in the kitchen.

We make two sorts of crumbs. Softish ones from the inside of the bread, la mollica, which are ideal for adding to meatballs, or the various vegetable dumplings I chuck together on a weekly basis (the principle is always the same: boil a vegetable until soft, mash it, add crumbs and grated cheese, possibly herbs, an egg and mould into balls.) We also use the softer crumbs as a crust or sicilian-ish stuffing for fish, meat or vegetables and in various pesto-like sauces. Any soft crumbs I am not going to use straight away I put in small plastic bags that then get lost at the back of the freezer along with the end of a bag of ancient peas and single serving of tomato sauce. Having pulled out the soft crumbs, I then bake the crusts in the oven until crisp so I can smash/rolling-pin them into a fine breadcrumbs, or pan grattato – which is of course nothing like as fine as shop bought stuff, but that is fine by meI use these fine-ish crumbs to dust meat or vegetable balls that are going to be fried, and to coat meat or fish that is going to be shallow-fried or baked. I keep dry pan grattato in a jar, bringing it back to life and crunch with a little jig around a hot pan.

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If Vincenzo, a Sicilian, whose widowed grandmother Lilla ran a bakery (an extraordinary thing in profoundly traditional, rural Sicily in the 50’s and 60’s) had it his way, there would always be a bowl of toasted breadcrumbs on the table for sprinkling on wherever: pasta, veg, salad. I first I thought it a very odd habit, especially the crumbs on pasta, which felt somehow double. Then some crumbs that had been tossed around a hot pan in olive oil until golden and crisp were sprinkled on my pasta with greens and anchovies, others on my spaghetti with oil, garlic and chilli: I was won over. Then I discovered breadcrumbs and anchovies. Which brings us to today’s recipe, one of my absolute favourites, pasta with anchovy breadcrumbs.

Anchovy breadcrumbs are –  I think – inspired. Breadcrumbs (soft or hard ones depending on your preference) are tossed in olive oil into which you have melted anchovies. Now you know how we are often reassured the fishiness of anchovies will slide away like an obedient manservant leaving just the wonderful seasoning: this is not the case here. The anchovy flavour remains indignant, it’s fishy, saltiness making the golden crumbs taste like nubs of Unami that shout I am an anchovy breadcrumb. Rest assured, if you hate anchovies you will hate these breadcrumbs. If you like anchovies however, I suggest you make this for lunch tomorrow.

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This is one of those satisfyingly simple pasta dishes that comes together, with minimal effort, in minimal time. While the pasta rolls and steams the kitchen windows and your face, you warm the oil (I like a little butter too), add the anchovies and then nudge them around the pan with a wooden spoon. Once the anchovies have disintegrated and the edges of the oil and butter are just starting to foam, you add the crumbs, raise the heat and jig them around the pan until they are crisp and golden. Once the pasta is ready, you drain it, tip it into a bowl, tip over most of the crumbs and parsley if you fancy, toss properly and divide between bowls. You finish each serving with the last few crumbs from the pan, before you enjoy your tangle of spaghetti ensnaring an anchovy rubble –  delicious stuff.

Later that day you could well find anchovy crumbs in the seal of your fridge, don’t ask me how.

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Spaghetti with anchovy breadcrumbs

Most recipes – if you can call them that – call for soft breadcrumbs. We prefer an uneven rubble made from old crusts, baked until crisp them smashed with a rolling-pin. Drier crumbs need less time in the pan than soft crumbs. As with so many pasta recipes, you want a little residual pasta cooking water clinging to the pasta – not dripping wet – which lends moisture to the dish. This is why tongs are helpful, allowing you to lift the pasta from the pan into the bowl with water clinging to it. Like so many very simple dishes, the key is practice, once you have made this a couple of times you will get the knack.

serves 2

  • 4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • a small knob of butter
  • 6 – 8 oil packed anchovies drained or 4 salt packed anchovies, cleaned and de-boned
  • big handful breadcrumbs from good bread that is at least a day, ideally two old (appox 50 g /1 cup)
  • 300 g spaghetti or linguine
  • black pepper
  • a handful of finely chopped parsley (optional)

Bring a large pan of water to a fast boil over a full flame. Salt the water, stir, the add the pasta and cook, storing from time to time, until al dente.

Warm the oil and butter in a frying pan or skillet over a medium-low heat. After a minute add the anchovies and nudge them gently around the pan until they disintegrate and dissolve into the oil. Add the breadcrumbs, raise the heat a little and fry until the crumbs have absorbed all the anchovy infused fat and are golden and crisp. Remove from the heat and keep warm.

Drain the pasta and tip into a bowl, sprinkle over the breadcrumbs and parsley if you are using it, grind over a little black pepper, toss and serve immediately with a glass of cold, white wine with enough acidity to hold its own against the anchovies.

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Filed under anchovies, food, pasta and rice, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, Sicily

best shown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Paola’s cacio e pepe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

of course you can

This article was originally written for Guardian Cook and published on Friday 31st October 2014.

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It wasn’t exactly a tut, more a click of the tongue. I heard it after I asked my Roman butcher if he would put a sausage through the mincer with the beef as I was making meatballs. I know the sound well. It means no. My Sicilian partner Vincenzo makes it so often it has been demoted from irritating to ordinary. As the mincer growled like a dog with indigestion, I turned to see where the tut had come from, and found a signora in her late sixties wearing a purple cardigan, now looking at me shaking her head. ‘Non si mette la salsiccia nelle polpette cara’ ‘You don’t put sausage in meatballs, dear.’

A few years earlier this would have made me upset, or cross and then frustrated as I searched for the words in Italian to defend myself and my sausage. These days I am used to impertinent opinions about food, I even like them, and was just about to voice my own opinion when another, much older woman, did it for me. ‘Certo, puoi mettere le salsicce nelle polpette cara’.’ ‘Of course you can put sausage in meatballs, dear’ She said this turning to the butcher who was wrapping the meat in red and white paper, and then to the couple behind her, herding people into the discussion at just after nine on a Tuesday morning in front of a butcher’s stall on Testaccio market.

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When you ask an Italian about meatballs, or they are simply offering you an opinion, one thing is (almost always) certain; that their mother, their grandmother, their aunt or their great aunt made the best polpette. Beyond that, there will be some idiosyncratic opinion as to how exactly they should be made, or cooked, or eaten. In Vincenzo’s family it was Nonna Sara who made the best polpette in tomato sauce in the village, a fact no doubt helped by the fact she was the wife of a tomato farmer. The whole family knows the recipe well; ground beef, bread soaked in milk, grated pecorino, chopped parsley and an egg, moulded, rested, fried and then poached in lots of tomato sauce,

Nobody though, even uncle Liborio who is a chef, is able to make them like taste quite like the polpette Sara made when they were growing up. Which makes sense! Can we ever truly replicate the tastes of our childhood? Making Nonna’s meatballs is just like me trying to re-create my grandma’s Lancashire tattie hash. I come extremely close, but can never truly recreate it, because I can never re-create the comforting, steamy atmosphere of my grandparents living room on a Tuesday night eating tea while watching Johns Craven’s news round.

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Back to the meatballs. Having settled upon your ingredients, which in my case are ground beef, the controversial sausage or ground pork, bread soaked in milk (essential addition I think, a giving a nice bready plumpness) parsley, mint (if I have it), a flick of nutmeg, parmesan or pecorino, salt (steady if you have added a seasoned sausage), pepper and a whole egg. Resting the just moulded meatballs is advisable, because, as my friend Carla puts it, it lets the flavours settle down and balls firm up.

Now, how to cook. Traditionally meatballs are fried before uniting them with the sauce. This creates rich, slightly caramelised juices. However some of the best, most tender meatballs I have eaten have been poached directly in the sauce. After taking and trying out plenty of advice, I now generally bake my meatballs briefly in the oven, which I find a comfortable halfway house between frying and poaching. I am sure the signora in the purple cardigan would have something to say about this. Once baked, I tip them and any juices collected at the bottom of the tin, into a generous quantity of tomato sauce. Once in the sauce, I poach the meatballs for 20 minutes or so.

Finally, how to serve them? The answer is, however you want. I’ve adopted the Roman habit of serving the sauce with pasta, and then meatballs separately as a second course or, in keeping with my cook once eat twice philosophy, a separate meal. In Rome you will notice that many braised meat dishes; ox tail stew, beef rolls, pork ribs and meatballs are all served this way. So on first day we eat some of the plentiful sauce, by now deep rusty red and richly flavored, with spaghetti or penne pasta. I sometimes find – as do several Italians I know – that a single meatball finds its way onto my plate waiting to be mashed into the pasta and sauce. The next day I serve the meatballs themselves – even tastier having had a good nights rest in the remaining sauce – just so, or with bread, rice, cous cous or best of all, buttery mashed potato.

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Week 2 – meatballs in tomato sauce to serve two ways

These really are guidelines as how to make, cook and eat meatballs. Feel free to adapt, experiment and take liberties, after all this is your supper.

  • 60 g decent bread without crusts, ideally a day old, better still, two
  • 60 ml whole milk
  • 400 g minced beef
  • 200 g minced pork or a fat sausage
  • 1 egg
  • 30 g grated Parmesan
  • a grating of nutmeg
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley and (optional) mint
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 small onion
  • 1 garlic clove
  • a pinch of dried chilli
  • 6 tablespoons olive oil
  • 750 g fresh tomatoes
  • 3 x 400-g tins plum tomatoes, chopped
  • salt and pepper

Put the bread in a small bowl with the milk and leave it for 10 minutes, or until the bread absorbs the milk and break easily into plump crumbs. Mix together all the ingredients for the meatballs and season with salt and pepper. Using your hands, mould them into roughly 35-g balls. Put the balls on a baking tray and let them rest while you make the sauce.

Peel and finely chop the onion and garlic and roughly chop the fresh tomatoes, Warm the olive oil a large deep frying pan and then gently cook the onion, garlic and chilli for about 15 minutes or until they soft and fragrant, but not coloured. Add the fresh tomatoes and cook for a further 10 minutes. Add the chopped tinned tomatoes, bring to a lively simmer and then reduce to a gentle one for about 45 minutes. Stir occasionally and press the tomatoes with the back of a wooden spoon to break them up.

Meanwhile preheat the oven to 220°C/200°C fan/gas mark 8 and once hot bake the meatballs for 15 minutes, turning them once, until they are just starting to brown.

After 45 minutes, by which point the sauce should be thickish and rich. You can at this point pass the sauce through a food mill or blast it with an immersion blender for a smoother consistency. Or you can simply add the meatballs and poach them in the sauce for a further 15 minutes. Allow the meatballs and sauce to sit for at least 30 minutes before serving.

First meal

Cook 400 g of pasta in plenty of well-salted fast boiling water. Put a little of the sauce in the bottom of a warm serving bowl, add the drained pasta, some more sauce and stir. Divide between four bowls and top with a single meatball (if you wish) and pass a bowl of grated parmesan around.

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Second meal

Boil and mash a kilo of potatoes with plenty of butter and a little warm milk, season well with salt and plenty of black pepper. Gently re-heat the meatballs in their remaining sauce and serve with a good dollop of mash. Rice and cous cous also work well.

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Link to the Guardian article

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Filed under beef, food, parmesan cheese, pasta and rice, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, Roman food, supper dishes

all mixed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rigatoni with ricotta and greens

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

serves 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

everyday impasto

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There are few things I like more than freshly made, thinly cut egg pasta, cooked until al dente and then dressed with anchovies and butter.

The combination of the fresh pasta: light, silky and almost buoyant in your mouth, coated with a rich, salty, nut-brown sauce of melted butter and dissolved anchovies is an extremely delicious one. It’s a dish that manages to be gusty and  – like me after a few drinks – a little bit loud, but at the same time remain soft and rounded and to taste both luxurious and everyday.

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Tagliolini with butter and anchovies

serves 2

  • 200 g farina di semola (semolina flour) or plain pasta flour
  • 2 medium eggs
  • 6 – 8 best anchovy filets under oil
  • 75 – 100 g butter

Make a mound of flour on the work surface and scoop a deep hollow in the center. 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.

Cut the ball of pasta into 6 pieces (the general rule is the number of pieces should be 3 times the number of eggs. So 2 eggs = 6 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 5 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.

Attach the cutter to the pasta machine and the run the sheets of pasta through the cutter and lay the Tagliolini on a well floured board until you are ready to cook them.

Bring a large pan of well salted water to a fast boil and add the pasta – it will take just a few minutes so keep tasting.

In a large saute pan, over a low flame melt the butter and the anchovies (drained from their oil), prodding the anchovies gently with the back of a wooden spoon so they dissolve into the butter. The butter should foam very slightly but no more.

Once the pasta is al dente (tender but with bite) drain it and add it to the sauté pan, stir so each strand is coated with anchovy butter and serve immediately.

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Filed under anchovies, fresh egg pasta, In praise of, pasta and rice, rachel eats Rome, recipes, supper dishes

outside in

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I have long accepted that in matters of Italian food I will always have a sense of being outside looking in. Outside peering in through a steamed-up kitchen window, rubbing it with my sleeve and then pressing my nose up against the pane, trying to understand what on earth is happening inside.

Of course I’m not outside. In some ways I am very much inside, settled in Rome, surrounded by Italians who cook and offer (endless) advice about how and why, and having become a capable cook of Italian food myself. But the sense of outside looking in, of being the English observer remains, possibly even more acutely than when I first arrived. A case of the more you learn the less you know, perhaps.

Not that I mind. Quite the opposite. I like this sense of being outside looking in. After all, it is how it is. I am an English woman with Northern roots, pastry making hands, a soft spot for potted shrimps and without even a distant whiff of Italian blood, living in Rome. It’s this inside outside dichotomy which fuels my curiosity and desire to learn. That’s not to say I can’t be a mardy student from time to time: proud, cross I have so much to learn and jealous of the omnipresent food culture and innate ability to cook and eat well that individual Italians (may or may not) possess.

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Which brings me to the recipe. Well nearly. As you may or may not have noticed, it has all been rather basic around here lately. This is mostly because it’s so hot, but also because having felt more outside than usual, I took some advice from a good cook and went back to basics. Not that I ever move much beyond them, but you get the idea. I’ve been frying garlic attentively (and obsessively,) drying salad and flowers thoroughly (it matters and I can be sloppy) searing chops briefly, making batter (I’d forgotten how) brushing up on my beans and greens, using pasta cooking water wisely (it’s the secret) and making spaghetti al pomodoro.

There are as many versions of spaghetti al pomodoro as there are cooks. This is a summer version, using the nicest, sweetest, plum or cherry tomatoes you can find: ripe, tight orbs that burst in your mouth. It was taught to me by the good cook, a Roman capable of great and gutsy culinary feats who tells me he would happily eat this everyday for the rest of his life give or take a bowl of pasta e fagioli.

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You smash two cloves of garlic against the work surface with the palm of your hand meaning the skin comes away, the cloves split but remain whole and your hand could ward off vampires. You then fry these two cloves – gently – in far more extra virgin olive oil than is decent. An indecent amount. I like indecent. Once the garlic is just turning light gold and its fragrance swirling up your nose, you add some halved cherry or tiny plum tomatoes and a good pinch of salt. You let the halves sizzle for a minute or so. Once they start softening and releasing liquid you squash them with the back of a wooden spoon and watch their red juices spill into and then tint the oil bronze. You add a few torn basil leaves, stir the pan still over the flame for a minute or so longer. You inhale.

While you have been doing all this your spaghetti has been rolling around a large pan of well-salted fast boiling water. Your timing is good obviously and the spaghetti done (al dente, so tender but with bite) as you inhale and the tomatoes bubble ‘ready‘. You scoop the spaghetti from the boiling water straight into the tomato pan. I use tongs for this which means some of the pasta cooking water clings to the spaghetti. You stir with tongs and a spoon, the pasta cooking water – magical stuff that it is – mixing with the oily, tomatoey juices emulsifying and creating a thickened sauce that coats each strand.

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Spaghetti with tomatoes cooked in extra virgin olive oil, scented with garlic and basil: I too could eat this everyday for lunch give or take the occasional pot of potted shrimps on toast. Divide. Eat inside or outside.

Spaghetti al pomodoro  Spaghetti with tomatoes.

serves 3

  • extra virgin olive oil q.b.
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 5oo g sweet cherry or tiny plum tomatoes
  • salt q.b.
  • a few leaves of fresh basil
  • 350 g spaghetti

Bring a large pan of well-salted water to a rolling boil. Add the spaghetti and set the timer for a two minutes less than the time on the packet

Warm the olive oil in large saute pan. Smash the garlic on the work surface or press it with the back of a knife so the skin comes away, it splits but remains whole. Fry the garlic gently in the oil until it is pale golden and fragrant.

Halve the tomatoes and add them to the pan along with a good pinch of salt. Once the tomatoes start softening and releasing their juices squash them gently with the back of a wooden spoon so their juices mingle with the oil.  This will take just a few minutes. Add the basil, stir, cook for another minute.

Test the spaghetti, once it is al dente, drain it and reserve some cooking water, or use tongs to lift it straight into the tomato pan. Lower the flame slightly. Stir until the oily, tomatoey juices, pasta and pasta cooking whiter come together into a well dressed whole. Pull from the flame and serve immediately.

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a suggestion.

This pasta needs nothing but an appreciative eater and a glass of something tasty but reasonable – a brilliant Lazio white called Capolemole Bianco from the maker Marco Carpineti for example. However, if you would like cheese, a little grated ricotta salata: soft, distinct but sheepish is nice.

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Filed under food, In praise of, olive oil, pasta and rice, rachel eats Italy, Rachel's Diary, summer food, tomato sauce, tomatoes