Category Archives: rachel eats Italy

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

all the orange

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I get by, is probably the best way to describe my Italian. Occasionally I might think I get by very well, but then I trip over a word or tense and see the confusion in the other persons eyes, or someone flips the conversation into English, which always feels like defeat. ‘Da quanto tempo stai qua?‘ How long have you been here? came up in the middle of an awkward conversation the other day. It crossed my mind to lie, but I didn’t, and said nearly 10 years, to which the persons eyebrows seemed to reply oh dear. I responded to the eyebrows with a long, complicated sentence that gave me a headache, but meant I redeemed myself. ‘Dai, parli abbastanza bene italiano!’ I was told. Which means something like, go on you speak pretty good Italian.

Luca is not so convinced. When I asked for ‘Due kili di arance‘ at the market last week my three-year old half English, half Italian son, who I am watching juggle two languages with admiration and envy, looked up at me and pinched his fingers like an Italian. ‘No mum, arance’. ‘Arance‘ I repeated. ‘No, arance’ he said slowly opening his mouth so wide I could see he needs a filling. Shit I thought, but said arance, agitated about the dental neglect and having my pronunciation challenged by a three-year old. We bounced the word back and forth like a ball, half playful, half deadly serious until Luca held his little palm taut’. Mum, just say orange’.

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Oranges had been good this year, especially the tarocco from Sicily, heavy things for their size with shiny leaves and dusty-orange skins some of which are flushed slightly with ruddy pink. Not that this flush is a guarantee of the flesh inside. Even though they are blood oranges, they might not be bloody. Each orange is a surprise, anything from yellowy-orange to bleeding scarlet. I like the surprise. I also like the way the natural oil in the zest sprays as you tear the peel –  if you bring a flame close it crackles like a sparkler –  and the flesh, firm and sweet.

A good year and the steady steam of illness Luca has been bringing back from school along with drawings and other children’s toys, means we have been eating a lot of oranges. There is juice every morning, so a permanently sticky counter and floor. We’ve been eating orange and fennel salad, sliced oranges with mint and dates and the lentil and orange salad I wrote about the other week. On a roll, I opened Jane Grigson’s Fruit book in search of new ideas and recipes. Damn, her writing make me happy, the way she weaves together history, etymology, geography, poetry and humour is simply extraordinary. I particularly enjoyed reading her description of the migration of oranges from China through India to Persia before they were brought to europe along with spices, silk and sugar by Arab traders at the end of the Roman empire. The evolution of the name it just as engaging, from the Dravidian indian, narayam, which means perfume within, to the Persian narandj, Spanish naranja, Portuguese laranja, which the Italians softened to arancia and the French and English, orange. Luca slips effortlessly between orange and arancia depending on who he is talking too. To me he says orange.

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Jane Grigson not only makes me want to read-on and on (the chapters on pears, plums and quince are superb) she makes me want to cook. From the orange chapter I’ve made her Maltese mayonnaise, which is simply mayonnaise sharpened with orange instead of lemon, and her carrot and orange soup, both surprising and excellent. Although not her recipe, it was her description of cheerful marmalade eaten in France that sent me on my marmalade-making way last week and her description of orange in cakes that made me pull Claudia Roden’s Book of Middle Eastern food from the shelf.

Do you know the recipe? The one where you take two oranges, boil them whole, pulp them, mix the pulp with eggs, ground almonds, sugar and baking powder and then bake the batter until it sets into a cake. CR describes it as somewhere between a cake and a pudding, which is the perfect description. The use of the whole orange, meaning all of it: skin, zest,  pith, flesh, feels nothing short of brilliant. Once boiled (for a long time which makes the kitchen smell gorgeous) and pulped, you have an extraordinary mixture: sharp, sweet, bitter and deeply flavored. It is then tempered by the sugar, almonds and eggs but the opinionated flavor remains distinct – as do the flecks of bright orange – giving the cake a musky, almost spicy flavour. It is such a good cake/pud, especially when eaten with a dollop of thick cream. I also like it with espresso.

Claudia Roden, another favorite writer, explains how this cake has Sephardic Jewish origins, as it was one of the dishes brought to the middle east by the Spanish Jews who fled the inquisition in the 14th and 15th century. This and Jane Grigson’s enchanting orange introduction had me wishing I’d been told about the migration of citrus and cakes at school, it would have been much more helpful that the dreary things we were taught in geography and history lessons. The cake also had me wishing for another land of blazing oranges and almonds, Sicily, and the house of Vincenzo’s grandparents that is sitting empty, waiting to be visited, lived in for a while even. But we can’t think about that yet. For now we will make do with cake made with sicilian oranges or arance (depending on who you are talking too).

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Claudia Roden’s Orange and Almond cake

From Claudia Roden’s Book of Middle Eastern food.

A loose-bottomed cake tin make things a whole lot easier. I use one of those John Lewis Anodised satin tins I pinched from my mum, it is 18 cm across, deep and works really well.

  • 1 large orange weighing approximately 350 g (or 2 smaller ones)
  • 6 free range eggs
  • 250 g ground almonds
  • 250 g granulated sugar
  • 1 heaped tsp baking powder
  • butter and flour/breadcrumbs or matzo meal for the tin

Wash the orange(s), put it in a pan, cover with cold water, bring to the boil and then reduce to a simmer for an hour and a half or until it is extremely soft when picked with a fork. Remove the orange from the pan, let it cool, then cut it open and remove any pips. Turn the orange into a pulp by pressing it through a sieve, mouli or by using a blender – I use my faithful stick immersion blender.

Prepare a cake tin – ideally with a loose base – by rubbing it with butter and then dusting it with flour. Set the oven to 190° / 370F.

Beat the eggs in a large bowl, add the pulped orange, beat again, then add the almonds, sugar and baking powder and beat again until you have a thick, even batter. Pour the battle into the tin and bake for between 40 – 60 minutes. Have  a look at the cake after 40 minutes it should be golden and set firm, I find testing with a strand of spaghetti helps, it should come out almost clean (almost, this is a moist cake), as opposed to very sticky. If the cake does need another 10 mins I tend to drape some tin foil over to prevent it from getting too brown. Let it cool in the tin before turning it onto a plate.

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We might not be thinking of going to the family house in Sicily quite yet, but I will be in Sicily from the 15 – 20th June with Fabrizia Lanza and Luisa Weiss for a week of food writing and cooking at the Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking school and we would love you to come too. Now of course it is in my interests to convince you to come, and I know it is a big commitment (that said rates of exchange are in our favour and flights too) but it is going to be extraordinary, beautiful, delicious and perspective changing week, I promise. The details are on The Anna Tanza Lanza web site, you can read my post about Sicily, also Melissa’s and Bea’s with her stunning pictures. If you would like to e-mail to ask me anything about the week, pls do. – R

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Filed under almonds, bitter oranges, cakes and baking, Fabrizia Lanza, oranges, rachel eats Italy, Sicily

bean eaters

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There used to be a pizzeria on Via Luca della Robbia whose sign said simply that, Pizzeria. However everyone called it il Toscano, the Tuscan, after the owner, whose name Fecini was engraved for the observant just above the door. In the mid 90’s Il Toscano was a regular haunt for Vincenzo and the rest of his misfit band as they rented a dungeon like rehearsal studio nearby. I’m told the pizzas, cooked in a wood oven, were good. Better though, were the specials that Il Toscano would reel off in such an uncompromising manner that not to order one was near impossible, even for a group of cocksure Romans, Sicilians and Calabrians. The tomatoes filled with rice were a favourite, as was the lasagna, but most beloved were the fagioli, or white cannellini beans, cooked for hours on end in a pot-bellied terra-cotta coccio (pot) in the pizza oven. The beans, fat and tender were served on a small white plate ready to be piled on bruschetta, or in a round terracotta bowl topped with a sausage.

When I arrived in Rome in 2005 Il Toscano had just closed, a fact I was in no danger of forgetting as every time we passed Vincenzo would go on about beans and how only Tuscans – known affectionately as mangia fagioli or bean eaters – knew how to cook them. Then a few years later, after a hasty kerfuffle of work, the Pizzeria reopened with a stark refit and new name; Bean, which suggested there would be cannellini.  There were, only without the brusque Tuscan, his wife, his oven and bean wisdom, the beans served were ordinary and sad. We weren’t the only ones to think so, Bean closed not that long after. Years later, my friend Laura who runs the spice shop and who used to take a bowl over to collect some beans from Il Toscano for her lunch, told me the tale. After 50 years of pizzas and convincing customers to eat beans,  il Toscano, suffering ill-health, was convinced by his family to retire. A few years later he was convinced again, this time to rent the neglected pizzeria out to the family that owns the expensive shoe shop nearby. The new owners had ideas as fancy as their Gucci and Prada shoes, but turned out to have absolutely no idea about how cook pizza or beans. ‘They even ripped out his beautiful oven‘ Laura told me while weighing out two etti of hazelnuts. ‘Idioti.’

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While all this convincing was taking place, we had begun visiting a part of southern Tuscany called Maremma for a few days each autumn. The plan was always the same; hot, sulfurous smelling springs, long walks and lunch at ordinary but good places in which we could eat acquacotta (a vegetable soup served over toasted bead and crowned with an egg) Pici all’agliata (fat hand rolled pasta with garlic and tomato sauce) and plate after plate of white beans.

Now I can understand why you might be underwhelmed at the thought of plate after plate of cannellini, after all they are only beans. However Tuscans have a way of preparing white beans that is nothing short of masterful; cooking them slowly, usually in terracotta, until their skins are imperceptible and their flesh tender but dense with an almost buttery texture. If you are lucky – as we were at La cantina in Scansano – you might come across a place that still cooks beans al fiasco, in a flask. A way that echoes the traditional habit of cooking fagioli in an old Chianti bottle; the beans dropped one by one through the narrow neck, followed by unpeeled garlic, sage leaves and olive oil before the bottle is plugged with a bit of cloth and then cooked through the night in the dying embers of the fire. Beans cooked this way sum up the Italian genius for making the simplest things simply delicious and the reason I’ll take beans, bread, local cheese and local wine over a fancy meal almost every time.

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Back from this years trip to Tuscany I decided I should at least try and cook beans like a Tuscan. So I called by Laura’s shop to buy a half kilo and asked her if she thought I could cook them without soaking. ‘Yes‘, was her reply ‘Just go slowly’. So I did, half a kilo of un-soaked beans, a good dose of extra virgin olive oil, some water, unpeeled garlic and sage in a pan at the sort of simmer that has you peering under the pan for fear the flame has gone out, for nearly four hours. While the beans simmered and the scent of garlic sage swirled around the flat, I cleaned the bathroom, folded three lots of washing, answered 27 E mails and then, most importantly, built a dinosaur out of toilet rolls.

The cooked beans, seemingly drunk on oil and water, were plump, extremely tasty and the nicest beans I have ever cooked. As a nod to the holiday and il Toscano we ate the beans with toasted bread and a glass of red for lunch. That night I re-heated another couple of ladelfuls which I topped with a sausage, Vincenzo with a lacy edged fried egg, which was, in retrospect, a little over enthusiastic, even for bean eaters like us. Good though.

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A pan of white beans to be eaten in various ways

It is not often practical or possible to cook beans for 4 hours, which is where soaking comes in; eight hours soaking in cold water and white beans will cook in about an hour. They won’t have the sultry tenderness of slow cooked beans, but they will still be delicious and another thing entirely from those tipped out of cans. Either way, a half kilo of beans yields eight portions, which for us, two adults and a little boy, means three meals. I have made some suggestions below. Try and avoid buying beans that are more than a year old by checking the harvest date. I season my beans once they are cooked. Lastly, what I understand to be the cardinal rule of cooking beans; never boil them! Bring the pan to a shuddering simmer slowly and then cook them at the lowest possible temp, so that the water barely simmers.

  • 500 g decent quality cannellini beans
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • a sprig of sage leaves
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • salt

Without soaking

I am conscious about proposing this method of cooking as I am sure I will get feedback about the need to soak (something about toxins that clearly Tuscans are immune to) flatulence and uneconomic cooking methods, However if you would like to try, put half a kilo of cannellini beans in a heavy based pan or terra-cotta pot, cover the beans with cold water, add a good glug of olive oil, two unpeeled cloves of garlic and a spring of sage and bring the pan slowly to the gentlest boil and then reduce to a barely perceptible simmer for 3 – 4 hours. Keep an eye on the water level and top it up if necessary – the water should come at least a cm above the beans until nearly the very end. The beans are ready when they are fat and tender but still holding their shape and virtually all the liquid has been absorbed. Season with salt and stir.

With soaking

Soak the beans in plenty of cold water for at 8 hours. Drain and rinse the beans, put them in a thick bottomed pan or terra-cotta pot along with the unpeeled garlic and sage and cover with cold water (it should come about 3 cm above the beans). Over a low flame, bring the pan to a simmer – skimming away any white froth – and continue cooking until the beans are tender, which will take anything from 1 – 1 /2 hours depending on the age, size and quality of the beans. Keep tasting, the beans should be tender and their skins soft but still hold their shape. Turn off the heat, season with salt, and let the beans cool in the cooking liquid.

Unless you are going to eat all the beans at once, keep the pan in the fridge, removing the beans with a slotted spoon and the broth with a ladle. Be careful not to touch the liquid with your hands as they will not keep as well.

To serve with bread or toast as starter or small meal or as a side dish

Using a slotted spoon, lift the beans you need into a small pan along with enough broth to moisten the beans. Re-heat gently over a low flame. Serve dressed with coarse salt and extra virgin olive oil.

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White beans with tuna, red onion and black olives.

Mixed some drained beans with some drained tuna (the sort conserved under olive oil is best), a little finely chopped parsley, a small red onion (if you find onion too strong, try soaking it in an inch of water with a few drops of red wine vinegar for 5 mins then draining) and a some black olives. Dress with good salt and best extra virgin, toss and serve.

White beans with garlic, sage and sausages

Warm a few tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil in a frying pan, add a peeled, gently crushed (but still whole) clove of garlic and a few sage leaves and fry very gently until fragrant. Using a slotted spoon add some beans and the broth clinging to them and turn them until glistening with oil – if you like you can mash a few with the back of the spoon to make the texture creamier. Season with salt and then serve with grilled or pan-fried sausages.

White beans with tomatoes.

In a frying pan warm a few tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil and a peeled gently crushed (but still whole) clove of garlic and fry gently until fragrant. Add three or four, peeled and roughly chopped tomatoes and continue cooking until they are soft and a bit saucy. Using a slotted spoon, add as many white beans as you think fit, stir and cook until the beans are warmed through. Add salt and a little more oil for good measure. Eat with toasted garlic rubbed bread, or topped with a poached egg.

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Filed under Beans and pulses, food, rachel eats Italy, Rachel's Diary, recipes, winter recipes

tease out

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Rome through the eyes of a two-year old is simple; the Colosseum is the house of the giants; the Roman forum is the dinosaur house; San Pietro is a big chiesa; fountains are taps, except the fountain in Piazza Navona which is a tap with a fish (the fish being the dolphin Neptune is wrestling). Each landmark, however familiar, is greeted with a comedy gasp, announced as if for the first time and then repeated until I have a headache; house of the giants, house of the giants, house of the giants possibly trailing off into a whisper, house of the giants. The market is similarly straightforward. Yesterday Luca marched three feet ahead pointing and announcing the stalls like a town crier; fish, meat, flowers, pane, dog (a pet stall) fruit and then at our stall – having eaten the first this year the day before – yelled peas, peas, peas. Gianluca immediately obliged and handed Luca a pod, which he grabbed and I made a futile attempt ‘What do you say when you are given something?‘ But Luca was too busy opening the pod, crack and then, at discovering six green balls suspended in the bright green case, said babies. 

They were babies, tiny pouches of sweet and savory that pop in your mouth, the sort of peas that elude me most of the time. We bought a kilo and a half. Then rather than listening to myself and getting us out of the market as quickly as possible by offering/revoking the usual impatient bribes – If you get in your push chair you can have some chocolate. Get in your push chair this minute LucaMassimo or you won’t have any chocolate or anything ever – I listened to Luca who was shouting and pointing at a bench. So we sat on the sunny bench, or rather the concrete slabs that function as benches in the center of the new market and ate probably half a kilo of peas straight from their pods.

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With the rest of the peas I made something I look forward to each year, a spring vegetables stew, a vignarola of sorts, a dish of spring onions, artichokes, broad beans and peas braised in olive oil and water (or white wine) until tender. The key is adding the ingredients according to their cooking requirements; onion first, then artichokes, broad beans and finally peas which just need a caress of heat and the warm company of the other ingredients to release their sweetness and tease out their colour. Important too, is adding just enough liquid to moisten the vegetables and encourage them to release their own juices, the effect being an intense but gentle, graduated braise where flavors remain distinct but also harmonious. Precise timings are impossible to give, so tasting is imperative.

Tender wedges of velvet artichoke, sweet peas, buttery but slightly bitter broad beans all bound by a weave of smothered onion;  a dish that celebrates and captures the fleeting brilliance of spring vegetables and one of the best lunches I know. Especially good with a piece of quivering but tensile mozzarella di bufala that erupts beneath your knife and a toddler standing on a chair singing voglio peas and cheese before falling off and taking the glass bottle of water with him.

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I have written about vignarola before, and will probably do so again. It is not so much a recipe but a way of thinking about spring vegetables. In Rome there are as many versions of vignarola as there are cooks and opinions are strongly held. Adding some pancetta or guanciale is traditional, but much as I love both, I think they totally overwhelm the pure vegetable taste that is so desirable. Again cooking times depend entirely on the vegetables; these tiny tender things needed just minutes whereas later in the season as peas and beans get starchier, artichokes tougher and onions more intrusive, they will all need longer.

Vignarola – spring vegetable stew

serves two vignarola lovers for lunch with mozzarella, or four as a starter or side dish

  • a bunch of spring onions
  • 3 artichokes, ideally the purple tipped, Italian chokeless variety
  • a kilogram of peas in their pods
  • a kilogram of fave, broad beans in their pods (shelled but still with their opaque coats at this time of year)
  • water or white wine / olive oil and salt as needed

Trim and slice the spring onions in four lengthways and trim and cut the artichokes into wedges rubbing them with lemon as you go. Shell the peas and fave and set aside. Warm some olive oil in a deep sauté pan with a lid and add the onions, stir and sauté for a few minutes. Once the onions are floppy add the artichokes and sauté (turning the vegetables with a wooden spoon every now and then) for five minutes or so. Add a little white wine or water to the pan and everything bubble gently for a few more minutes. Add the broad beans, fave, stir, add a little more liquid if necessary and then cook over a low flame until the vegetables are tender (which depends entirely on the vegetables.) In the last couple of minutes add the peas. Add salt to taste.

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Filed under artichokes, Beans and pulses, fanfare, rachel eats Italy, Rachel's Diary, recipes, spring recipes, vegetables

well-framed

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We’ve driven out of Rome on three half-day trips this week; along the ancient Appia Antica to the hills, to the sea and to a town called Campagnano, small escapes providing space and an outside view. I remember a Drama tutor once asking how on earth can you comprehend what is on top of you, I think this is especially true of Rome and writing a book, both of which can loom so large and feel so claustrophobic that you need to take a step back to have any sort of perspective. Three trips meant three lunches.

One lunch was no more than fine, the other two though, well they seemed sent to remind my lately cynical self of the unique brilliance of Italian food and wine and the kaleidoscopic connection with place, history and tradition that can pass nonchalantly through a meal. I am still thinking about an antipasto of pear dipped in polenta and then deep-fried until golden and served with a dusting of pecorino cheese, abbacchio brodettato, lamb with egg and lemon sauce, and a dish of salt cod, tomatoes, raisins and pine nuts, all three of which may well sound unlikely, but were superb.

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I’ve written about peperonata before and I will probably write about it again. It will also be in the book, with a hilarious (or not so hilarious) story to justify its place. It is a recipe that falls into my extremely useful and delicious category. I first made it fifteen years, transported by Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson and a scarlet stew to Italy long before I moved here, I have made it constantly ever since. So many things about peperonata are good. It is simple and relatively quick to make: onions, red peppers, tomatoes smothered and simmered in olive and butter into a thick, vivid, full- flavored stew that is at once silky, sweet and savory. It is forgiving, proportions can be varied, tomatoes fresh or tinned. It’s generous, bringing the best out in peppers and tomatoes, even the underprivileged sort, making them the tastiest they can be.  It keeps well for a couple of days in the fridge and it freezes well. Peperonata is also, like my friend Tom, the most accommodating dish ever, it quite simply goes with everything.

It is excellent served hot with chicken, pork, lamb, beef and my favorite, topped with a  poached egg. It can be stirred into pasta or rice. It’s jammy almost chutney-like-nature makes it good in sandwiches, on toast or crostini. It is lovely as a salad or part of an antipasto like supper, sprinkled with parsley or dotted with black olives. It good too – as I discovered a couple of days ago – made into tart.

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I make the pastry ridiculously quickly – 120 g plain four, 50 g cold diced butter, salt, a little grated parmesan, iced water – and rolled it thinly, lifted it into the tin, pricked it and then sat the tin in the fridge for 30 minutes to chill. I then baked it until it was the colour of a walnut, before spooning in the peperonata and sliding it back in the oven for 5 minutes. I’m not sure this was entirely necessary.

For a moment I felt as though I had inherited my mum and granny Alice’s knack for pastry: a thin, buttery crust, slightly crumbly at the edges but holding firm underneath. The parmesan was a random impulse that works well, giving the pastry a sharp, salty edge. It is important your peperonata is (as Jane Grigson puts it) moistly juicy, even a little dry, never sloppy. We had the tart – the peperonata framed neatly by the pastry – with thinly sliced fennel with olive oil and salt, a lunch that made me nearly as happy as slamming shut those books.

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Peperonata tart

Note – this makes enough peperonata for two 21 – 24 cm tarts – you can never have too much peperonata. You can of course use fresh tomatoes. I’d make double if I were you.

  • a large white or yellow onion
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 25 g butter
  • 3 large red peppers
  • a tin of tinned plum tomatoes or 6 good ripe tomatoes peeled and roughly chopped
  • salt and black pepper
  • 120 g plain flour
  • 50 g butter
  • 20 g freshly grated parmesan
  • salt and black pepper
  • cold water
  • You need at 21 cm – 24 cm tart or flan tin (ideally with a loose base)

Peel and slice the onion and then sauté it in olive oil and butter until soft and lightly golden. Cut the peppers into short strips, discarding the stalks, seeds and pith. Add the sliced peppers to the pan, stir and then cover the pan and leave over a medium flame for 15 minutes. Lift the lid once or twice to stir.

Add the tomatoes to the pan. Leave the peperonata to cook uncovered for 30 – 40 minutes at a lively simmer or until all the liquid has evaporated away and the peppers are extremely soft and lie in a rich, thick, vivid tomato stew. It should be not be sloppy.  Season vigorously with salt.

Rub the diced butter into the flour with your fingertips until they resemble fine breadcrumbs. Add the parmesan, a pinch of salt, some black pepper and enough iced water to bring the ingredients together into a smooth ball. On a lightly floured board roll the pastry into a round an inch larger than the tin. Lift the dough carefully into the tin, press it into the corners. Leave the pastry overhang. Prick the base of the pastry with a fork and then put it in the fridge for 30 minutes to rest.

Bake the pastry case blind for 15 minutes (or until it is pale gold and firm) at 180°. You can break off the pastry overhang or leave it be. Fill the tart case with peperonata and then return to the oven for 5 more minutes. Serve the tart warm or at room temperature with salad.

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Filed under peppers, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, spring recipes, tarts, Uncategorized

the whole triangle

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Even a tiny triangle of lemon embellishing a drink was enough to make my grandpa shudder and suck his breath. Vincenzo’s grandfather on the other hand ate a lemon a day, skin, pith and flesh all. Now to be fair, there was a continent of difference between the two lemons. Between the heavily waxed, leather-skinned, shockingly sharp ones my grandpa might have found a triangle of in his drink in an Northern English pub in 1980 (my other granny had one such pub and I was a deft hand at slicing lemons and pulling pints by the age of 8) and the pale, fragrant, almost sweet lemons Vincenzo’s grandfather grew on his farm in Sicily.

That said, I still like the (unfair) comparison between the two; John Roddy grimacing at the sight of a small yellow triangle in a pub near Sheffield, Orazio D’Aleo eating the whole fruit in a field in southern Sicily. Apart from the citrus difference and the language, we think our Lancastrian and Sicilian grandfathers would have got on well, in an awkward, silent way.

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Lemons are important in this house, Vincenzo doesn’t eat them whole, but almost. He squeezes them in and on the obvious: fish, salad, vegetables, tea, and the less obvious; strawberries, watermelon, bread, potatoes, espresso. He also washes the dishes with the squeezed out halves. Although less exuberant with my squeezing and still trying to get in the washing up-habit, I am – and this is might sound like pseuds corner – devoted to Italian lemons, delighted by their pale, unwaxed skins and oily spritz, gentle pith that’s as thick as a thumb and flesh that tastes clean and citric.

Rainy days and the fact everyone has been under the weather has made the bowl of lemons even more imperative, and not just for their suggestion of sunshine. Lemons have been lifting, cutting, sharpening, encouraging and brightening. They’ve been squeezed with blood oranges to make juice the colour of a desert sunrise, spritzed on greens, fat fringed pork chops and into my eyes, twisted into dressing for salad and vegetables and then – for the third time this week – grated into batter for a cake.

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I’ve written about this cake before and I’m sure I will again. It’a actually the only cake I can make with any sort of ease, which has much to do with the inclusion of olive oil which renders everything, including cake batter, sleeker and more effortless. I think I could make it blindfolded, although it’s probably best I don’t try. Three cups of flour, one of olive oil, one and a half of sugar, another of yogurt, some baking powder and the zest of two lemons (which also clears your sinuses and lifts your spirits, although not as effectively as a gin and tonic with a curl of lemon peel) all whisked (energetically) together into a pale, creamy batter which you bake in ring-tin until firm and golden.

Simple and good, an everyday cake with a dose of mood lifting citrus. An accomadating cake that is as comfortable on a breakfast table as it is wrapped in a paper napkin and stuffed in a pocket for a morning snack, as good beside a cup of tea at about 4 as it is with a beaker of hot milk (with a nip) at about 9. I think both grandfathers would have approved. Serve in wedges or eat the whole thing, it is entirely up to you.

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Ciambellone al limone – lemon ring cake

You need a ring-tin. I used a 100 ml glass as my measuring cup which worked well. Many people use a small yogurt pot (100-125 ml) as the measuring cup, which works well too. This is a small cake, which I’m sure many of you may like to double, which means adjusting cooking times accordingly. I have not tried this yet, so would appreciate feedback from anyone who does. Update from my friend Elizabeth – my cup, or a small yogurt pot (100 – 125ml) is a half US cup. The cake can also be baked in a loaf tin, small loaf tins or doubled to fill a bundt tin.

  • 3 cups of 00 or plain flour
  • a cup of extra virgin olive oil
  • a cup and a half of sugar
  • a cup of plain whole-milk yogurt
  • 3 large eggs
  • a heaped teaspoon of baking power or half a packet of Italian lievito
  • the zest of 2 unwaxed lemons

Set the oven to 180°

Whisk together the flour, olive oil, sugar, yogurt, eggs and baking powder in a large bowl. Grate over the lemon zest and whisk again (vigorously.) Pour the batter into a greased and floured ring tin and bake for 25 – 30 minutes or until the cake is golden and cooked through (I test with a stand of spaghetti). Allow to cool before turning onto a plate.

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Filed under cakes and baking, fruit, lemons, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, winter recipes

the other quarter

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Now the leaves are falling, if I lean precariously from my balcony I can just about make out the statue of a winged god punching out an innocent bull through the branches of the trees that line Via Galvani. God and bull sit above the entrance of the Ex-mattatoio, Rome’s sprawling ex-slaughterhouse that closed for business in 1975 .

I stood looking up at the bull and the god, then down at the collage of cobblestones and cigarette butts, with my friend Joanna nearly nine years ago. The Ex-mattatoio was the one of the stops on Joanna’s self-styled architectural tour of Testaccio. A tour for which Joanna wore red and yellow high heels, with style it has to said, not a stumble, which is quite an achievement if you consider the cobblestones and libel worthy pavements. A tour that steered us from imperial ruins, domes and sepia-stained piazze down river to a quarter shaped like a quarter or a wedge of cheese. A quarter crisscrossed with streets filled with 19th century residential blocks, boasting a futurist post office, a boisterous market that smelt ripe and bosky, an abandoned slaughterhouse, a plethora of trattorie and bars I wanted to try and a charm I couldn’t quite put my finger on. In short: where I wanted to live.

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To understand something of Testaccio and the Ex-mattatoio is to understand something of Roman food – or one aspect of it at least – and therefore part of the story of Rome. Food as story or story as food or something akin to that. The area has been associated with food trading since ancient Roman times when it was a port and sprawl of warehouses. In fact Testaccio takes its name from an archeological site called Monte dei Cocci that rises somnolently at the bottom of the wedge, which is in fact a pile of broken but neatly stacked amphorae dating from the fourth century. The Monte is now the hub for a cluster of nightclubs that are burrowed into its base, meaning at night ancient amphorae jolt in time to drum and bass, latin jazz and eighties disco: ancient and everyday colliding with almost banal ease.

It was in a bar in the shadow of Monte dei Cocci, while her dog tried to avoid the shameless advances of my anarchic son, that my neighbour, sociologist and writer Irene Ranaldi talked to me about the part of Rome I have lived in for nearly nine years.

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Until it was developed in the late nineteenth century, Testaccio was an open space dotted with ruinous clues as to its ancient significance and vines producing wine grapes for industrious Romans. During and after 1873, a zoning plan turned the former port and open space into a quarter of public housing, factories and the slaughterhouse. It was supposed to be the ultimate in working class neighbourhoods where thousands of immigrants from all over Italy attracted by the promise of work and the metropolitan lifestyle Roman had to offer, could live.

For the next hundred years the slaughterhouse was quite literally the bloody, beating heart of the quarter, providing work and meat for those who could afford it. The workers of course couldn’t afford the meat (and little else, poverty was endemic), but were paid in kind with the bits nobody else wanted, meaning the offal that made up a fifth of the animal’s weight. It was this quinto quarto or fifth quarter that the workers took home to their wives or local trattoria owners, who in turn, inventively and resourcefully turned it into tasty, sustaining meals.

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This is the uncompromising and distinctive quinto quarto cooking, a style of cooking evolved through necessity but continued for posterity, taste and because the bits neglected became the bits selected (by some at least). A style of cooking you still find in trattorie and homes: ox tail cooked slowly with celery, tripe with tomato sauce and dusted with pecorino cheese, lamb’s offal with artichokes, grilled sweetbreads and intestines. These are dishes that merit attention and  – for some of us –  a leap beyond misconceptions, squeamishness and a possible moral crisis because they are tasty and good, because they are part of the animal we (may or may not) decide to eat, because they are dishes that tell a story.

Which is why I think it’s important I mention them here, after all, they are as much a part (albeit a less regular one) of this chaotic – and messy, so messy, I am a domestic disgrace – Roman-kitchen-of-sorts as freshly baked pizza bianca, battered courgette blossoms, pasta with beans, spaghetti al pomodoro, braised beef, artichokes, curls of puntarelle, tiny sweet peas, fave, ricotta, sour cherries, sweet-yeated buns, strawberry scented grapes, ugly hazelnut biscuits that taste buono and other good things.

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My grandpa Gerry would have loved today’s recipe: Coratella con carciofi , so would my Grandpa John, although the artichokes might have given him heartburn, but then most things gave him heartburn. All my grandparents knew the merits, both economically and gastronomically, of offal, that if you eat meat it is disingenuous and wasteful not to eat the whole animal. My brother does too, Ben this post is in no small part for you. Coratella is lambs offal: liver, lungs and heart, a beautiful, complex cluster – it is, it is I will hear no different –  of rosy-pink, coral and chestnut-brown. Cooked well, coratella is a textual and flavoursome delight, the liver is creamy and delicate, the lungs pillowy and tasting rather like pot-roasted pork and the heart rich and thick. Carciofi are artichokes, these are the first, long spindly things that really do remind me artichokes are wild thistles.

Probably the most difficult thing is finding some fresh lambs coratella from well-reared animals. Persistence with a good butcher should do the trick. You also need a keen hand to ease the lungs away from the membrane. You need a keen hand too, for trimming the artichokes, not that it is complicated, more finicky, I hope this is helpful. Once all the elements are prepared it is just a matter of frying them in the correct order.

First the onion and artichokes, adding a little white wine and then leaving the pan at a burping-bubble of a braise until the wedges are tender. Then in another pan you fry the coratella, adding the parts to the pan according to how quickly they cook, so first the lungs, then the heart and finally just for the last few minutes the liver. The coratella is cooked when the lungs whistle and all the parts are lightly browned and cooked through. To finish, you unite the meat and the artichokes, season with salt and pepper, lemon juice and maybe a little mint, then serve.

Food with a story, a story with food.

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Coratella con carciofi – lambs pluck with artichokes

Adapted  from a recipe in il talismano della Felicità  and Il Cucchiaio d’Argento

serves 4

  • 4 artichokes
  •  a lemon
  • a small onion
  • 4 tbsp olive oil or 50 g butter or lard
  • 200 ml white wine
  • 5oo g lamb’s pluck (lung, heart and liver)
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper.
  • fresh mint and another lemon

Trim the artichokes, rubbing them with the cut side of a lemon to stop them discolouring and then slice them into thin wedges. Keep the artichokes in a bowl acidulated with the juice of half a lemon until you are ready to use them.

Peel and dice the onion. Warm 2 tbsp of the olive oil in a saute pan and then fry the onion until soft and translucent. Add the drained artichoke wedges, stir well so each one is coated with oil, then pour over the white wine and reduce the heat so the pan bubbles gently. Allow the artichokes to cook/braise for 15 minutes or until they are tender. Add a little more wine or water if the pan looks dry. Set the artichokes aside.

Prepare the pluck by pulling the lungs away from the membrane and then cut all three parts into small pieces.

In another pan  warm the other 2 tbsp of olive oil and then add the lungs and cook for 10 minutes, then add the heart and cook for another 10 and finally the liver which should take another 5 or six minutes.

Put the other pan with the artichokes back on another flame and then once the meat is lightly browned and cooked through add it to the artichokes, season generously with salt, pepper and a good squeeze of lemon, maybe some ripped mint and if you feel it needs it, another slosh of wine, cook for another few minutes, stirring every now and then. Serve immediately.

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Filed under artichokes, coratella, cucina romana, offal, quinto quarto, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, Roman food