Category Archives: potatoes

tumble out

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It had been years since I’d made leek and potato soup. Years. At first I couldn’t remember if it was better with stock or water ? Not that stock was an option yesterday. If I added an onion along with the leek? If I used butter or olive oil? Leek and potato soup over-thinking while the rain battered against the kitchen window again – Rome is awash, the river is high  – and Luca shouted ‘I helpin you I do‘ sounding like Dick van Dyke as Bert.

There was a time growing up when I (we) ate leek and potato soup once a week. It was one of my Mum’s standards along with spaghetti Bolognese (the kind Italians remind you doesn’t exist in Italy) carrot and coriander soup, roast chicken (which meant chicken soup the day after) tatie hash, cottage pie, fish pie, ratatouille and more ratatouille. Mum seemed to chop, simmer and blend it out of almost nothing: 2 potatoes and a few leeks transformed into pan of soup while we watched an episode of Blue Peter. Often she would make it in the afternoon so it would be sitting there, savory, warm and the sort of green Ben couldn’t resist joking about when we got home from school. Sometimes it was tea, so with bread and butter, sometimes supper in which case there would be cheese and salad too, and my dad still in his work shirt, his tie slung over the back of the chair. My dad loves soup, which has much to do with the fact he loves bread and butter, bread and butter being inseparable from soup for Martin Roddy.

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I’m not sure why I bothered over-thinking, the soup tumbled out in much the same way words do when certain songs are on the radio. She walked up to me and she asked me to dance, I asked her her name and in a dark brown voice she said Lola L-o-l-a Lola lo-lo-lo-lo Lola. The rain tumbled too, so much so that even the leafless trees in Via Galvani seemed soggy. I felt like my mum in about 1979 (but without the smock and headscarf)  shouting ‘Benjamin take that lego out of your nose immediately‘ peeling onions, then trimming leeks –  splitting them so as to wash away the grit – before cooking them slowly in a mix of butter and olive oil (a mix that sums up this English kitchen in Rome,) adding potatoes and water, simmering and then blending. Vegetables drawer to lunch in three episodes of Pimpa.

It hadn’t changed a bit, the soup that is, savory and satisfying, the potatoes providing starchy, soft substance and the leeks – like obedient onions – flavor and something silky (which could be slithery but isn’t). Two utterly dependable, utilitarian ingredients coming together into something delicious, simultaneously comforting and verdant. Satisfying too, how easy it is to make. Not that things always have be easy in the kitchen – far from it, but sometimes easy is called for, especially when it’s raining and everyone is hungry for something warm, good and now (give or take an episode of something.)

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Leek and potato soup

Some use stock for leek and potato soup, but if the vegetables are good, it is not necessary, some also add milk or cream. I don’t. I remove a third of the soup before blending the rest into a smooth cream, then returning the third to the pan. This way the texture is more interesting.

serves 4

  • a white onion
  • 3 – 4 leeks (once trimmed approx 500 g)
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 25 g butter
  • 2 potatoes (approx 500 g) ideally floury as they need to thicken the soup
  • salt
  • black pepper
  • more olive oil or a little cream to serve

Peel and small dice the onion. Trim the leeks so you just have the white and very pale green part, make two two inch cuts at the top of each leek so you can fan them open and rinse them thoroughly under the cold tap – there will be dirt hiding. Slice the leeks into slim rounds.

In a large soup pan, sauté the onion and leek with a pinch of salt in the oil and butter over a medium-low flame until very soft and floppy – this will take about 10 minutes. Meanwhile peel and chop the potato into inch cubes. Add the potato to the pan, stir so each cube is glistening with oil and cook for a couple more minutes.

Add a litre of water, stir, bring the soup to the boil and then reduce to a simmer for 20 minutes or until the potato is tender and collapsing. Remove a third of the soup from the pan, blend the other two-thirds with an immersion blender until smooth and then return the third you removed back to the pan. Add salt and black pepper. Serve with a swirl of extra virgin  olive oil or cream.

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Oranges, dates and goats cheese. I am also on Instagram now.

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Filed under food, leeks, potatoes, Rachel's Diary, recipes, soup, Uncategorized, winter recipes

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

Thursday therefore

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Let’s begin with a bag of potatoes. Not the most alluring start I know, but a sound start and one I’m sure Jocasta Innes, who died last week aged 78, would have approved of. This week I’ve found myself cooking from her Pauper’s cookbook and marveling anew at her thrifty flair and inventive recipes that prove you can eat extremely well for very little. Her carmine kitchen walls, well hung pans, black leather trousers and self-confessed ‘party slut’ years, I’ve been marveling at those too. What a woman!

Let’s begin with a bag of potatoes. Not taut and waxy, full and blousey or tiny, soil-encrusted new potatoes though, save those for a well-dressed salad, a good mashing or as mint-scented chaperones for a pair of tender lamb chops. A bag of what my home economics teacher Mrs Carrington would have called boilers or everyday potatoes, the tuber equivalent of a reliable friend; neither waxing lyrical or liable to collapse into a mealy heap just when you need them. You will also need a large pan of cold water, salt, a food mill or potato ricer, plain flour, a knife and fork, and about an hour.

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In Rome it’s traditional to eat Gnocchi di patate on Thursdays. Press your nose up against a misted up window pane or peer round the door of any traditional trattoria on any given Thursday and will almost certainly see gnocchi di palate or gnocchi del Giovedi chalked up on the blackboard. Peer persistently and you might well catch sight of the Gnocchi being whisked from kitchen to table: steaming bowls of small, pale dumplings, forked on one side, thumb depressed on the other, sitting nonchalantly in simple sauce.

To add eggs, or not to add eggs: that is the question. In Rome the answer is – as far as I understand – resolutely yes. Eggs are mixed with floury (farinoso) potatoes and a generous amount of flour which produces stout, well-bound and thus well-behaved gnocchi. The kind of gnocchi that can withstand a rowdy, rollicking boil in an equally rowdy trattoria kitchen. 1 kg potatoes, two whole eggs and 300 g of flour seems more or less the general Roman consensus, give or take a very strong opinion.

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Then there are the gnocchi di patate of the north, made with just potato and the scantest amount of flour. Tender, billowy gnocchi. Gnocchi that wouldn’t stand a chance up against a couple of Roman dumplings in a dark pan. I like gnocchi di patate made both with and without eggs, but last Thursday, in the mood for something delicate and channeling Jocasta (about time too, these are lean times and my domestic management is appalling) I pulled Marcella Hazan from the shelf.

I had several disheartening experiences before finding my way with gnocchi di patate. The key, according to Marcella, is what she too calls boilers, trustworthy potatoes that are neither too waxy nor – and this is important – too floury which all too often means the eggless, scantily floured gnocchi disintegrate and disappear like so many ships into the rolling salted water.

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Having scrubbed your potatoes, you boil them whole in their skins until tender. As soon they are cool enough to handle you peel them and then press them through the food mill or potato ricer and into butter-coloured heap of tiny potato threads on the work surface. Working quickly while the mixture is still warm, you start by adding salt and just three-quarters of the flour, hoping it is enough to bring the potato into a delicate but workable dough. If necessary, you cautiously add the rest of the flour. You divide and roll the dough into five, fat sausages which you then cut into small pieces. A light touch is required.

To finish, you gently gently press each gnoccho against the inside of a fork with your thumb. This way, one side is branded with four prongs, the other a thumb sized indent, all intended to help the sauce gather and cling obediently. Keep the work surface, your hands, your child and the gnocchi well dusted with a (fine) blizzard of flour. The water must be plentiful, as salty as the sea and boiling steadily but not tempestuously, you are going to gently boil/almost poach your delicate dumplings. Drop 15 gnocchi in at a time. Once they bob like excited children to the surface, let them cook for another 12 seconds before using a slotted spoon to scoop them gently from the water to a warm serving plate onto which you have spooned a little sauce.

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And the sauce. Browned butter: comely, rich and reminiscent of hazelnuts, is just delicious (isn’t it always) with gnocchi di patate, especially if scented with some musty, camphorous sage. However keeping Jocasta in mind and using what I had, I decided a large tin of plum tomatoes that had, been sitting neglected behind the beans should be milled and simmered with a few leaves of basil into a smooth, dense sauce.

It was a good lunch, the gnocchi tender and tasting so purely of potato, the tomato and basil sauce simple and clinging faithfully. Even with a (frugal) dust of parmesan, – granular, salty cheese makes a particularly heavenly contrast with the humble sweetness of potato – I estimate gnocchi di patate al sugo for four costs under €3, a true pauper’s lunch, which is something I have thinking about lately. I didn’t have any wine, which was appropriate but disappointing, so I raised a forkful of gnocchi to Jocasta instead. The beauty of modest resourcefulness. I think she would have approved. Thursday therefore gnocchi.

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Gnocchi di patate al sugo    Potato gnocchi with tomato sauce

Adapted from recipes in Pellegrino Artusi’s La scienza in cucina e l’ arte di mangiar bene and Marcella Hazan’s The essentials of classic Italian cooking and the ever trustworthy Le ricette regionali Italiane.

Adding eggs to the dough does make it more manageable, especially if your potatoes are very floury. It also makes the gnocchi more substantial, which many people (Romans) prefer. I leave that decision to you, your potatoes and gnocchi experimenting. If you do decide to add eggs, add two for every kg of flour. One thing everyone seems to agree on is the food mill or potato ricer – both indispensable for gnocchi. Both indispensable in the kitchen per se, particularly the food mill. It is my favourite kitchen tool.

serves 4

  • 800 g boiling potatoes (medium-sized and all more or less the same size)
  • 150 g plain, unbleached flour (plus more for sprinkling and dusting)
  • salt
  • a large tin (580 ml) of best quality Italian plum tomatoes
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • a clove of garlic
  • a few leaves of fresh basil
  • freshly grated parmesan

Scrub (but don’t peel) the potatoes. Put the potatoes in a large pot of cold, well-salted water and bring to the boil. Cook until the potatoes are tender. Drain the potatoes then once cool enough to handle peel them. Pass the potatoes through a food mill or potato ricer onto the work surface. Add a pinch of salt and three-quarters of the flour to the potatoes and bring them together into a dough. The dough should be very soft and smooth – you may or may not need the final quarter of flour. A light touch is required.

Divide the dough into quarters. Dust the work surface and your hands with flour and roll the quarters into long sausage-like rolls about 2cm/ 1″ thick. Cut the roll into pieces 2cm long. Using your thumb gently press each piece with the back of a fork which will mean you have fork indents on one side and a small thumb depression on the other. Sprinkle the pieces very lightly with flour.

Make the sauce. Pass the tin of tomatoes through a food mill or blast with an immersion blender. Warm some olive oil in heavy-based pan and saute the garlic until fragrant and golden. Add the tomato and basil, bring to the boil and the reduce to a simmer for 20 minutes or so or until the tomato has reduced significantly into a dense, spoon coating sauce. Taste and season with salt. Spread a little of the sauce in the bottom of the warm serving dish or bowl.

Bring a large pan of well-salted water to a gentle rolling boil, but not tempestuously, you are going to gently boil/almost poach your delicate dumplings. Drop 15 gnocchi into the pan. Once they bob back to the surface let them cook for another 12 seconds before using a slotted spoon to scoop them from the water and onto the serving dish. Spread a little more sauce over the gnocchi and sprinkle with parmesan. Repeat with the next 15 gnocchi.

When all the gnocchi are cooked and on the serving dish, pour over the remaining sauce, sprinkle with more parmesan and serve immediately.

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Filed under books, gnocchi, potatoes, primi, recipes, Roman food, tomato sauce

Soup baby

In January last year, two important things happened. Firstly I discovered I was pregnant and secondly, I began spending my Sundays with Mona.

I’d first met Mona a couple of years before. My friend and marvelous ice cream maker Kitty was doing an internship at the American Academy where Mona, guided by Alice Waters, had established the Rome Sustainable Food Project, a program dedicated to slow food principles and to providing local, organic and sustainable meals for the community at the Academy. Kitty invited me for dinner and I, of course, accepted.

That first meal at the Academy made striking and lasting impression. Firstly because of the place, The Academy itself, whose arresting buildings with their courtyards, fountains and gracefully maintained gardens sit proudly atop the Janiculum Hill. Buildings and gardens I had passed curiously every week on my way to teach at the elementary school. Then there were the people, Academy fellows, scholars, artists and other clever looking folk with their families and guests all sitting round communal tables in the dining room. At first glance it appeared one of the more intimidating gatherings of my life – the kind in which I usually transform into walking social gaffe, develop a speech impediment, facial rash and fall over –  but in reality it was one of the nicest. And then of course their was the food. We ate Spaghetti with fennel, pine nuts and breadcrumbs, roast pork with carrots and turnips, a green salad, and for dessert, panna cotta with a ruby colored grape syrup and little biscuits. Food inspired by la cucina romana, Chez Panisse, and the collective experience of the cooks and interns in the Academy kitchen, it was – as the project intended – seasonal, simple, elegant, delicious, and nourishing.

Kitty’s tales of life at the Academy, the RSFP project and the extraordinary Mona had already engaged me. By end of the dinner, deliciously sated and both blithe and bold from the copious red wine and a very nice herby Amaro at the Academy bar, I was convinced: I would apply for a 3 month internship. My speech impediment and facial rash threatened to flare as I thanked and made rather clumsy compliments to Mona before jumping on my bike and careering down Via Garibaldi contemplating roast pork, panna cotta, cooking and arriving home in record red wine speed

Talking of bikes, over the next couple of years I’d often see Mona flying fearlessly, joyously and perilously around the narrow cobbled streets of Trastevere on her black bike. On each occasion I’d try, and fail, to flag her down and then I’d renew my vows to apply for the internship.  It took a return visit from Kitty to put an end to my procrastination and convince me to get in touch with Mona. Which I did. We met at one of the long tables set in the courtyard of the Academy and we talked about Rome, food, our mutual love of cicoria, Elizabeth David and writing. We talked about the RSFP and she promised she’d keep me in mind.

True to her word, she did, and a month or so later Mona sent me an E mail telling me that she was about to start work on the second book of recipes (the first is Biscotti) from The Academy kitchen. This one was to be about soup. She asked if I might be interested in helping her – an internship of sorts – with the initial stages of the book, assisting her while she tested recipes, started to put into words 50 of the RSFP soups and complied a comprehensive glossary. I, of course accepted.

Every Sunday morning I’d walk – and as the months passed waddle – up the winding Ginaicolo hill to the Academy, crunch my way across the gravel courtyard and enter the backdoor of the Academy kitchen. Mona was usually tapping quietly away at her laptop which she’d set up in front of the window overlooking the bass garden over when I arrived, already deep in soup thought and planning the days recipes. Some stock might be bubbling in anticipation on the stove, there were often bowls of beans or chickpeas that had been soaking patiently all night, and there were always crates of Bernabei’s glorious, vital vegetables waiting for attention. First we’d have coffee, maybe some moreishly good granola, then I’d take Mona’s place in front of the computer and she would begin making soup.

Let’s start with the Minestra di pomodoro e riso’ she would call across the kitchen.

Make a note of the ingredients, three medium yellow onions, two stalks of celery. Cut the onions and celery into small dice. Oh and maybe we should make a note for the glossary about soffritto.’

Then the sound of Mona’s neat rhythmic chopping and my rather less rhythmic, two-fingered, cack-handed typing. And so we worked, Mona cooking, me typing and sending recipes off to Mary-Pat or Lizzie for testing, stopping every now and then to watch closer, peer into a pan, pod peas or wash spinach. And then of course there was the tasting, for which we were often joined by an intern or Academy fellow irresistably called to the kitchen, the heart of the Academy. And so we’d sit, side by side, knees tucked under the work bench, looking out of the window, tasting, pondering, criticizing, praising bowl after bowl of soup.

And then there was the talking. While the soup bubbled we talked and talked. We talked about soup, about living in Rome, about cicoria, ceci and cotiche, we talked about my growing concern. You see Mona was one of the first people I told and she endured more pregnancy ruminating than is healthy. She is still, to this day, the person knows more about the whole complicated, messy but joyous situation than the rest of my friends put together and the person who sustained me most with her quiet sane wisdom. She also fed me and my growing soup baby, not only on Sundays but for much of the following week by sending me clattering and clinking back down the hill with vast mason jars filled with soup, bundles of biscotti and hunks of lariano bread.

A copy of Zuppe arrived in the post month, and as I’d hoped it’s – as I’d expected from Mona, Annie, Niki and the RSFP – a brilliant and perfectly formed little book; inspiring and straightforward, a book of quiet good taste. 50 recipes for soup from the Academy kitchen, the soups that are served from the large glazed terracotta zupppiera each lunchtime, soups inspired by the bold Roman cuisine, Bernabei’s vegetables, the spirit of Chez Panisse and the Academy community. For me they are the best kind of recipes, inviting and approachable, neither technique driven or complicated, recipes as good, honest and tasty as a bowl of Pasta e ceci on a blowy Tuesday in January.

I have many favorite recipes from the book: Pasta e ceci and Pasta e fagioli of course, Favata (dried fava bean and proscuitto soup), Passato di sedano rape (celery root soup), Minestra di lenticche riso e cicoria (lentil, rice and chicory soup) , Minestra piccante di carote (spicy carrot soup), Ribollita (twice boiled Tuscan bread soup), Zuppa di piselli e patate novelle (pea and new potato soup). But in the spirit of the RSFP, where each morning the interns begin their day by taking a thorough inventory of the fridge which informs the days lunch, I took an inventory of my own fridge and discovered that it not only needed taking in hand and giving a bloody good clean but contained all the ingredients for another of my favourites,  Zuppa di palate, cavolo verza and pancetta (potato, cabbage and bacon soup).

This was one of the soups Mona made on our first Soup Sunday. Even though I never doubted I would like it – a kind of soupy colcannon with possibly the worlds best flavoring; bacon – I remember being surprised at quite how delicious it was. It’s a simple and tasty soup, both savory and sweet from the onion and carrot, deeply flavored with bacon and bay leaves, given body by the collapsing potatoes and serious leafy depth from the limp and lovely cabbage. Given some nice bread and a lump of cheese I would happily eat this once a week for lunch.

It is – like most of the recipes in the  book – simple to make. You soften carrot and onion in olive oil and then add the pancetta (bacon) and continue coking until it has rendered its tasty fat. Next you add potatoes, bay leaves and water and cook until the potatoes are tender, Finally you add what seems like a mountain of cabbage and simmer for another fifteen minutes or so, or until the is cabbage too is tender. You season and serve with a drizzle of good olive oil and black pepper. .

The soup has a slightly Dickensian pottage look to it, a frugal simplicity that you might be tempted to tart up by adding stock, blending or adding and swirling. Don’t, the soup is prefect as it is, tasting as it should of potato, cabbage and bacon.  As always with such a simple soup, good ingredients that taste vitally as they should are fundamental.

Zuppa di patate, cavolo verza e pancetta

Potato, cabbage and bacon soup

From Zuppe by Mona Talbott

Serves 4 – 6

  • 2 large carrots
  • 1 medium yellow onion
  • 75g / 3 oz pancetta
  • 30 ml / 1 fl oz olive oil
  • salt
  • 750 g / 1 1/2 lb starchy potatoes
  • 2 bay leaves
  • small white or savoy cabbage
  • extra virgin olive oil and black pepper to serve

Peel and cut the carrots and onion  into small dice. Cut the pancetta into 1 cm /1/2 inch tiles.

Sweat the vegetables and pancetta in olive oil over a medium-low heat in a 6 litre /6 quart pot. Add a pinch of salt and continue cooking until the vegetables are tender and the pancetta has rendered it’s fat.

Peel and dice the potatoes into 2 cm/1 inch cubes. Add the potatoes and bay leaves to the cooked vegetables and stir well, coating the potatoes with the rendered fat. Add 2 litres/ 2 quarts of cold water. Bring to a boil dn then reduce to  simmer for 40 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Remove the outer leaves from the cabbage and then cut first in half and then into strips and finally 2 cm / 1 inch squares. Add the cabbage, a generous pinch off salt and another 0.5 litres / 0.5 quarts of water to he pot. Simmer for another 15 minutes or unit the cabbage is tender.

Remove the bay leaves, taste, re-season if necessary and serve with  drizzle of olive oil and a grind of black pepper.

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Filed under food, potatoes, recipes, soup, vegetables

Frying again

One of my current edible preoccupations is with small oblong rolls of buttery mashed potato, dipped in beaten egg and breadcrumbs, fried until golden brown texture like sun and consumed while extremely hot and crunchy. But before I ramble on – you know how I like to ramble on –  about potato croquettes, maybe it’s time we caught up, or started at least.

Don’t panic! I’m not about to come over all dramatic and toe curlingly revelatory – that post will hit your desktop sometime in mid March and will be accompanied by a free pocket pack of kleenex ultrasoft tissues and a miniature bottle of Bombay Sapphire gin. Today I just want to let you know where I’m at, fill you in so to speak, explain my erratic presence here, the unfamiliar pictures and kitchen and reassure you that Rachel is – despite the tumbleweed around here – eating.

Since November last year, when Vincenzo and I separated, I’ve been staying on the other side of the Tevere River in a quarter called Trastevere with my friend Betta. It’s been a very strange, sad and difficult time, but I’ve had a pretty perfect place to take refuge in. Betta’s rather unusual but beautiful flat is on the first floor of an eighteenth century building opposite Villa Farnesina on the ancient and precariously cobbled Via della Lungara. As I type this, I’m watching someone – looking rather shifty it must be said – having a sneaky cigarette behind an orange tree in Villa garden. Beyond the garden, peeping above the row of impressive terraced houses on the other side of the river is the cuppola of the church on Via del Monserrato. If I were to stand on tip toes and lean right out of the front window – we’re talking extreme, quite dangerous leaning here – I think I could just about see the cuppola of San Pietro.  I do hope this sounds like an advert for my friends flat because it is. Not actually the flat itself, but the magnificent room, I mean suite, next- door which Betta runs as a bed and breakfast. Cue jaunty jingle, appropriate link, end of ad.

Despite my sporadic presence on these pages, I have been cooking. It’s been strange and unfamiliar, without the stupendous Vincenzo, shopping at a new market, cooking in a new kitchen with unfamiliar surfaces, knives, pans, without my table. But I have been cooking. You know about the carbonara and amatriciana, there have also been gallons of soup, slightly obsessive quantities of roast chicken and – quite uncharacteristically – several batches of biscuits (all thanks to this terrific book by the exceptional and wonderful Mona Talbott and Mirella Misenti from the American Academy ) There have also been potato croquettes.

I’d never really considered the croquette before coming to Italy. I’d eaten them, primarily in St Georges school dining room between 1984 – 1989, providence – a Findus catering sized pack, fried two hours before consumption, floppy, sporting a soggy and suspiciously orange coat which concealed a gluey, unctuous filling that inevitably resulted in mild heartburn. Similar digestive challenges were presented by the potato croquettes I insisted on buying from dodgy fish and chip establishments in London after nights at the pub. It wasn’t all croquette horror though, I vaguely recall some rather good ones in France, Lyon I think, during the infamous exchange with Carolyn when I was 14. Unfortunately, the trauma of that particular trip rendered that particular food memory, along with several others: apricot tart, Toulouse sausage, partridge cooked with cabbage and croissant au beurre from Au Levain du Marais (I know, it’s a tragedy,) redundant.

I discovered the true potential of the potato croquettes in a pizzeria in Naples when one was hurled – think low flying and extremely well judged frisbee – onto my table along with a deep-fried zucchini flower: antipasti while I waited for my pizza to emerge from the oven. I knew straight away it wasn’t your average croquette, but even so, I still wasn’t particularly excited by the prospect of a cylinder of deep-fried mashed potato however golden it looked. Then I tasted.  Hot, crisp, crunch. The shell shattered giving way to an extremely soft, light, well seasoned, parmesan spiked, parsley flecked cushion of mash. I ordered another one immediately.

The croquette high was followed by various lows as I ordered and encountered much croquette disappointment – it seems many of the pizzeria in Rome, even some of the best, aren’t much more discerning than St Georges school dining room. Then, just as I was about to give up all hope I went to La Gatta mangiona in Monteverde and there it was, the second, a modest little roll, reassuringly wonky (those extremely neat ones are deeply suspicious) golden brown texture like sun. Hot, crisp, crunch on the outside, then inside a soft cushion of mash with a sliver of mozzarella hiding in the center.

A few days later, still humming and clucking about my croquette high (and pizza high for that matter, la saporita at la Gatta – buffalo mozzarella, capers and anchovies – is divine) and in possession of some left- over mash I decided to make my own wonky little croquettes.  Simple to start, no parmesan, parsley or mozzarella, just the well- seasoned buttery mash shaped into dumpy little cylinders, rolled in beaten egg, coated in breadcrumbs and then fried in a couple of inches of oil until crisp.

As with most of my kitchen firsts I thought I might need a couple of attempts to make a decent croquette, but on this occasion it was a case of croquette bingo. I have subsequently made less successful batches – not enough oil, premature shaping when the mash was not cool enough, adding milk to the mash made it too soft to shape, even when cool. Now in possession of modest croquette experience, in the knowledge of both croquette success and croquette failure, may I offer you the following advice. You want to make a nice firm mash: floury potatoes mashed with butter and seasoned generously. Allow the mash to cool for at least 30 minutes.  Make sure you coat the rolls carefully and generously with beaten egg and then with breadcrumbs. Fry them two or three at a time in a good two inches of oil and most important of all, if you want the crisp crunch – croquette from the French croquer means “to crunch” after all –  having scooped them out of the oil, give them a them a brief drain on some kitchen towel and then eat as soon as possible.

I repeat, no faffing around now, gather guests around the stove and eat as soon as possible . Ideally with a cold beer and deep-fried zucchini flowers.

Please note my croquettes are wonky because, as everybody knows, very neat croquettes – like very neat people and houses – are very, very suspicious indeed.

Potato croquettes

  • 450g /1lb  potatoes
  • 45g butter
  • salt
  • whole nutmeg
  • 1 large egg
  • cup of fine breadcrumbs
  • vegetable or olive oil for frying (I use olive oil)

Peel and quarter the potatoes and then cover them with salted cold water in a large pot, bring to the boil and then simmer until tender which should take about 15 minutes. Drain the potatoes.

While they are still warm, mash the potatoes (or pass them through a potato ricer) with the butter and then season with salt and a good grating of nutmeg. Allow the mash to cool for at least 30 minutes.

Using your hands, scoop out a small ball of mash and shape it into an oblong croquette. Repeat this until you have 12 croquettes. Lightly beat remaining egg in a shallow bowl and put bread crumbs in another shallow bowl. Dip a croquette into egg, letting excess drip off, then roll it in the bread crumbs until well coated.  Sit the prepared croquettes on a parchment-paper-lined baking sheet.

Heat 2 inches of oil in a 12-inch heavy skillet over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Fry croquettes in batches, turning occasionally, until golden brown this will take 4 to 5 minutes per batch. Transfer to paper towels to drain. Serve immediately.

yield: approx 12 croquettes

Having mastered the basics you can now begin your variations on a potato croquette theme – hiding a sliver of mozzarella at the center of the roll, enriching the mash with grated parmesan or pecorino, lifting it with finely chopped parsley or mint, making a mash of parsnip and potato, adding some salt cod…..

Thank you so much for all your kind and supportive messages, E mails and advice over the last few weeks. A particular thank you to Vincenzo who despite everything, has kept telling me, keeps telling me, to pull my finger out and get back into the rhythm of cooking, writing, reading, to get back here. It’s good to be back.

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Filed under antipasti, food, potatoes, recipes

Pressing concerns.

It was meant to be a doorstop or a bookend, but this old iron, bought for three euros at Porta Portese market, has unexpectedly grafted itself on to our kitchen lives, become part of our unsophisticated but trusted batteria di cucina and proved itself to be extremely useful. It’s perfect for squashing and searing steak, chicken or slices of vegetable onto the griddle, it’s not half bad at pounding a slice of veal to a scaloppine and it’s better, and more entertaining, than a rolling-pin when it comes to smashing, crushing and reducing digestive biscuits to crumbs. When the nutcracker alluded us, it made short shift of shelling the walnuts, hazelnuts, and on another, rather messy occasion, this iron conquered a coconut. I have only dropped it on my foot once.

If you can stand the excitement of my iron tales, there’s more. You know how the greaseproof paper scuttles back into a roll as you try to draw a circle on it with a blunt pencil in an attempt to line the cake tin ? Well it doesn’t if this sturdy chap is holding down the corner, he does the same with cookbooks that might otherwise fan closed just at the crucial moment – I know, it’s rock and roll in our house. Last but not least, our iron, our ferro stiro is ready, waiting, like a cymbal player in an orchestra, for the moment when the recipe says….. ‘place a heavy weight on top.’

I know, I know, it’s not the most commonplace recipe instruction, but every now and then, heavy weights – like cymbals – are called up for their moment of glory, like now, for pressed potato.

‘Pressed potato is a very tasty and brilliantly simple idea. It is, as the name suggests, potato that’s pressed with said heavy weight. More specifically you boil good waxy potatoes until they’re tender, then you slice them into thick rounds and layer them in a clingfilm lined mould or bread tin, not forgetting to sprinkle each layer cautiously with good, plump capers and season prudently with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Average pictures of this on Flickr but I’m sure your imagination is better.

Once you’ve filled the mould, tin or in this case a rectangular Pyrex container to the top, you bring the cling film over the potatoes neatly, as if you were swaddling a baby – not that I’ve ever swaddled a baby but I’ve observed –  then you place your heavy weight on top and refrigerate overnight. The next day you invert the pressed potato onto a large plate and peel away the clingfilm so you can admire your curiously beautiful, patchwork potato loaf, flecked with green on the sides.

You can now slice your pressed potato with a sharp knife.

I’ve made two of these this week and we can now firmly agree with Fergus Henderson (this is his idea) that a slice of waxy pressed potato studded with salty, gutsy capers is a wonderful base for oily, salty things. Each slice dressed with anchovy fillets and more extra virgin oil is delicious, as is a slice beside two rashers of grilled bacon. On Tuesday Vincenzo had two slices topped with two frilly edged olive oil fried eggs. But our favorite was a slice of pressed potato with a couple of hard-boiled eggs and a very big dollop of one of the very nicest lotions, green sauce (salsa verde) made from masses of parsley, mint, capers, garlic, anchovies and olive oil. By the way, I am never using the mixer again for green sauce because it’s true, you end up with a pulp rather than the marvelous textural delight you get if you chop roughly by hand.

Green sauce is a wonderful thing, as is pressed potato and hard-boiled eggs for that matter.

This is a plateful that requires good bread, sourdough is particularly fine with this lot, and a serious amount of messing up – green sauce piled on potato and mashed into eggs, everything nudged and piled on bread, more oil, more bread to mop up more green sauce, another slice of pressed potato……you get the idea I hope . Bold and simple food.

You can of course use any heavy weight – before the iron I had a brick in the kitchen.

Pressed potato

Adapted from Fergus Henderson’s book Nose to tail eating

Good waxy potatoes are important

  • 2kg waxy (cyprus or the likes) potatoes, peeled
  • a healthy handful of capers (extra fine if possible, if not roughly chopped)
  • salt and black pepper

Boil the potatoes in salted water, check for when they are done with a sharp knife in order to catch them before they fall apart, Drain.

Line a bread tin or mould with cling film. As soon as the potatoes are cool enough to handle but still warm, slice them into 1cm thick circles. Lay one layer of sliced potatoes at the bottom of the tin – don’t be afraid to patchwork this – sprinkle cautiously with some of the capers, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper, cover with another layer of potatoes, more capers and salt and pepper. Repeat until the tin is full. cover with cling film and place a heavy weight on top.

Place in the refrigerator over night. The next day tip the pressed potato out of the mould and slice with a thin sharp knife.

Green sauce

Adapted from Fergus Henderson’s book Nose to tail eating

  • Large bunch of flat leaved parsley
  • a small bunch of mint
  • a handful of dill
  • a small tin of anchovy fillets in oil, drained and chopped
  • 12 cloves of garlic peeled and chopped
  • a handful of capers, rinsed if under salt and roughly chopped
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • black pepper

Chop your herbs finely but not too finely and mix with the anchovies and capers in a large bowl. Add the olive oil a bit at a time, you want to keep the consistency loose but still spoonable, not runny or too oily. Taste and season with black pepper, the anchovies and capers mean you probably won’t need extra salt. Serve in generous dollops.

I’m sure you can make a neater pressed potato than me, Vincenzo called my attempts pressed stressed potato, I was quite stressed at that particular moment so I wasn’t amused. I have another pressed potato in the fridge under the iron right now, we are going to have it tomorrow night with smoked eel and horseradish sauce which I’m hoping will be very tasty.

Other pressing concerns, yep, I have a few, mostly tedious and the reason I’m not here as much as I’d like to be. Thats life I suppose and it’s good to be here now. Have a really good (rest of the) weekend.

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Filed under food, potatoes, recipes, sauces, vegetables