Category Archives: salads

when it was march

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rocket and tomato salad, garlicky greens, bruschetta and mozzarella

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

do choke

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They are only thistles, but what beautiful thistles, weighty with purple tips and ribbed stems. I set the artichoke alarm this morning and was at the market before 8, on a Saturday and without the assistance of caffeine or a hairbrush, which meant I wasn’t really awake and my shadow had a fuzzy halo. Even when it’s early and quiet the market rushes at you, a blur of leaves and rounds, gleaming fish scales, marbled meat, cheap shoes, Roma scarves and banter. Shoppers are earnest at that hour, no amateurs, except me. My fruttivendolo took control and  picked me 15 of the nicest globes and offered to buy me a caffè. He also found me a box for my thistles, which I carried back down Via Galvani, artichokes jolting in time with my steps towards breakfast.

Tomorrow my friend Elizabeth and I are going to fry seven trimmed artichokes until they look like bronze flowers and stuff and braise seven more until they are drab green (but taste anything but) and look like wind inverted umbrellas. Well, that is the plan. 7 plus 7 is 14, which means there was one extra for lunch.

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It may seem unusual for a vegetable associated with slow braises, bakes and long steamy boils, but very thin slices of raw globe artichoke tossed with olive oil, lemon juice and paper-thin wisps of parmesan cheese make a superb and surprising salad that seizes every taste bud. The crisp slices of artichoke, bitter with curious sweetness contrast brilliantly with the salty, granular cheese, the lemon softens the rawness but sharpens the edges and the olive oil envelops everything.

It is not an obedient salad, you need a crust of bread and a fork to maneuver and eat, and then another crust to mop up the leftover dressing and chase the tiny flakes of cheese marooned on the side of the plate.

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Artichoke and parmesan salad

Trimming artichokes can make you feel rather like Edward Scissorhands when you start out and your first artichoke will look a little like a two-year old who has cut his own hair (which is no bad thing for this salad.) Persevere, it is more fiddly than anything and worth it. The younger and more tender the artichokes the better.

serves 2

  • 2 lemons
  • 2 large or even better 6 – 8 baby globe artichoke
  •  4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
  • parmesan cheese

Prepare a bowl of cold water acidulated with the juice of a lemon. Trim 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. Lop about an inch off the top of the central cone, As you work, rub the cut edges of the artichoke with the squeezed half of the lemon. Working quickly, cut the chokes first into quarters (and pull away away hairy choke) then thin slices and put them in the acidulated water.

In another bowl whisk together a tablespoon of lemon juice and the olive oil. Drain and dry the artichoke slices then toss them in the dressing. Pile the dressed artichokes on a plate, pour over any remaining dressing and scatter over some thin slices of parmesan, eat immediately.

Note – As my friend Valeria notes below, it is extremely hard to pair artichokes with wine as they contain a chemical compound called cynarin which has the bizarre effect of of making everything you eat or drink after taste oddly sweet. Which is bad news for wine, and bad news for wine is bad news for me. The parmesan and bread though, redress the balance enough to make a glass enjoyable. Valeria suggests following the what grows to together goes together rule, meaning a wine from the region the artichokes were grown in. I ate my artichokes from lazio with a malvasia from Lazio.

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Filed under artichokes, cheese, salads, Uncategorized

well-dressed

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If you’d told me writing a book involved so much not-writing and staring blankly, I’m not sure I would have believed you. At least there is the cooking, lots of it, although not in the way I imagined. Which was rambling, recipe testing sessions during which friends dropped in and out, alternating with quiet radio four filled days of experimentation. The reality is (mostly) me with wild eyes, cooking and photographing two diametrically opposed dishes on a small stove, Vincenzo commenting on the pasta and Luca standing on a chair with no trousers and his socks at half-mast shouting ‘What doin? I help knife it mamma‘. Not that I would have it any other way.

Yesterday, having done more than enough not-writing, Luca and I went for a walk. Our usual route, along via Galvani,  through the market (buying soft, sweet, yeasted buns from Costanza and a head of broad, pale escarole from Mario) across the cobblestones and into the Ex-Mattatoio, where the big bambu, a 25 meter high sculpture made from thousands of bamboo poles ingeniously bound and jointed, is dressed as a christmas tree. I’m not sure who was more delighted. Back home, even though Luca stood on a chair brandishing a wooden spoon, I didn’t get wild-eyed, I made pasta with ricotta and lots of black pepper, thinning the cheese with a little pasta cooking water, and then this salad.

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The key to this salad of escarole, gorgonzola cheese, walnuts and pear, is making sure the foundations, the structural weave of leaves, are well dressed. The best way to do this is with your – scrupulously clean – hands, rubbing, almost massaging the oil, salt and vinegar into the leaves. Over the glistening leaves, you break the cheese, crumble the nuts, slice the pear and then gently turn the salad again.

I am generally wary of busy salads and however attractive and potentially tasty, feel disappointed, cheated even if they are called lunch. I felt neither wary nor cheated yesterday. While the pasta eaters ploughed, I ate two plates of bitter/sweet leaves in the folds and creases of which hid nubs of creamy, heady gorgonzola, milky, musty walnuts and arcs of sweet pear. Impertinent flavors and textures playing off against each other and then harmonizing cleverly. There was of course bread. I did feel a little cheated of my inch or two of wine (I am great believer in drinking – just a little – at lunchtime) but there was yellow bread making and non-writing to be done.

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Escarole, gorgonzola, walnut and pear salad

serves two

  • a small head of escarole
  • a ripe but firm pear
  • 100 g gorgonzola
  • a handful of walnuts or hazelnuts
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • salt
  • a few drops of good balsamic or sweet sherry vinegar (optional)

Wash and then dry the escarole before ripping it into approachable pieces. Peel and core the pear, rubbing the outside with a cut lemon as you work to stop it discoloring. Shell the walnuts and break them into small pieces. Using the point of a sharp knife and your hands break the cheese into smallish pieces.

Put the leaves in a bowl or serving dish, sprinkle over a little salt, pour over some olive oil and a few drops of balsamic vinegar if you are using it. Use your hands to rub, the oil, salt and vinegar into the leaves. Slice the pear over the leaves, add the cheese and nuts and again – gently – use your hands to toss the salad. Serve.

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Filed under cheese, Rachel's Diary, salads, Testaccio, Uncategorized

chasing crisp

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Rather like remembering not to rant or let fury at things beyond your control ruin your day, I’ve been trying to make the best of it. I even bought a nearly-cashmere cardigan, a pair of jade tights and rearranged the living room around a new striped rug that matches – quite incidentally – both cardigan and tights. I’ve tried to knit. I have crunched more leaves than my son. I have roasted chestnuts, smashed pumpkins and sliced porcini with stems the size of a babies leg for risotto, I even claimed ‘Autumn is my time of  year‘ in a proprietorial way while tossing my autumnal hair. But the truth is, I keep wanting to shout.

Not at the cold, I don’t mind that a jot, nor the drizzle – although the drizzle and anoraks are a pain –  but at the light, or lack of it. By 4 o clock as Luca wakes from his afternoon nap, the light is slipping away. We dress as hastily as is possible with a two-year old and then run, trying to catch the last hour, only to watch it being swallowed by dark. The park we used to run around until eight, is locked at five. The kiosk with it’s woven plastic chairs and memories of icy, sticky drinks and salty snacks, is empty. We adjust our jumpers and try to make the best of it, after all shops are starting to glitter and groan with christmas promise and cakes laced with dried figs and black pepper: this is no year for bah humbug, but the dark chases us home.

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Back home by 6 with a long evening ahead – we seem to have adopted a southern European bedtime – I swing between attentive mother:  a book called ballata, board games and baking biscuits and absent mother: Disney babysitter, smarties and a very large glass of wine while I read blogs about craft activities I could be doing and dipping (Molly I adore you), mothers who have their children in bed by 7 and how to host the perfect cocktail party. Then I make supper.

Autumn nights call for stout sustenance, ideally with butter or fringed with fat, food that satisfies and reassures. Well mostly! They also call for bright and crisp from time to time, something to slow the slide onto the rug, to offer contrast and just a little resistance. Two things provide this, the first is puntarelle: a relative of chicory that twists into crisp, sweet but bitter curls, that you dress with anchovy and garlic dressing, the second is a salad of orange, fennel and autumn’s most precious fruit: pomegranate.

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I like the mess: tiles and wood splattered with crimson. When we were little we would eat pomegranates that my Mum brought back from the Athenian Grocer on Moscow Road with a toothpick, impaling the little red jewels and pricking them into our mouths. I thought pomegranates were the most exotic fruit. I still do. When I go to live in Sicily – which I will – I will eat pomegranates every day I can.

Fennel: clean, crisp and with a bracing aniseed bite, slivers of orange, sweet and slightly acerbic pomegranate seeds, the right amount of salt and lots of best extra virgin olive oil makes a brilliant salad, one that manages to be both cool and warm, that provides brightness on dark days.  Especially good after a bowl of pasta e patate. Did I mention how much I like pasta e patate? Yes, good.

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This is fact the fourth time I have written about this sort of salad. It is based on the classic Sicilian salad of orange, fennel, black olives and possibly onion. You could of course add olives to this version, ideally the inky-black, wrinkled, oven-baked ones that taste somewhere between dried plum, leather and liquorice. You really do need to be generous with salt – sprinkle from high above so the salt is evenly distributed – and even more generous with the olive oil.

Fennel, orange and pomegranate salad

Serves 4

  • a large or two small bulbs of fennel
  • 2 oranges
  • a ripe pomegranate
  • salt
  • extra virgin olive oil

Remove the tough outer layers from the fennel setting aside a few feathery fronds and slice a few millimetres from the base. Cut the bulb in two and then slice it as thinly as possible.

Cut the bottom from the orange so it sits flat on the work surface and then pare away the skin and pith carefully with a sharp knife. Working carefully, again with a sharp knife, cut the flesh away from the membrane on each side of each segment so you have soft, pith-less arc of orange. Work over a plate to catch juices

Cut the pomegranate in half and gently break the fruit open to expose the seeds and pull them away from the membrane and onto a plate.

Arrange the sliced fennel and orange segments on a large plate, scatter with pomegranate seeds and fennel fronds. Pour over any orange or pomegranate juice that collected on the plates. Sprinkle with salt and zigzag generously with olive oil. Allow to sit for 30 minutes before serving

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Filed under fennel, In praise of, oranges, Rachel's Diary, recipes, salads, vegetables, winter recipes

bread, love and fantasy

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I wasn’t someone who fantasised about upping sticks and starting a new life somewhere else. Far from it in fact: there were dozens of things I wanted to change, but London wasn’t one of them. It suited me, I fit I’d think as I pounded its pavements, parks and up the left hand side of the escalator in Camden Town station, as I worshipped in its temples of art, books, music, theatre and beer. I grumbled of course, but then I grumble everywhere, only never for very long. There were bouts of wanderlust too. Nothing serious though and nothing that couldn’t be remedied by a nice, long holiday. From which I was always glad to get back, my faith and fancy for London renewed.

Then I upped sticks and started a new life in Rome. A long-short story I’ve told before and will probably tell again – more concisely – another time. Why I mention this today, is not to unravel anything, but because yesterday morning as I walked back home down Via Galvani, the market to my left, a two thousand-year old mound of broken terracotta pots to my right, bags cutting into the crook of my arm, the September sun searing my unmediterranean skin, unable to find the words in Italian to reprimand the man parking his car across the zebra crossing, I realised that Rome suits me, I fit.

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Which is surprising considering my reluctance at the start, the fact that Rome has made me acutely aware of other, outside and feel more English – which I can only describe as feeling straight only wonky – than I ever did in England, that I have struggled so inelegantly with language, culture and pasta cooking water. Or maybe it isn’t surprising, after all, there is love and work.

Love of Rome itself, glorious and grimy, particularly my wedge-shaped quarter Testaccio and the people in it. Of Roman food: bold, brash, genuine, simple, redolent of herbs, pulses, grains, pork, lamb, ricotta, olive oil, vegetables. A love for Luca – which I would have anywhere I know – that feels inextricably knotted with the city he was born in. Yesterday he swaggered along beside me, maritozzo (a sweet yeasted bun) in hand and cream on his face, looking as Roman as his papà, treading the pavement as if he owned it, which in a way he does. He is two this week. I am 41 next week, a number which seems to fit me too, in a comfortable, slightly crumpled way.

Then there is work, work I really like, as an English and theatre teacher, singing children’s books to life with my Brazilian guitar playing sidekick for a captive audience of five years olds. ‘Don’t get your knickers in a twist said Jack, let’s have a look in the patchwork sack? My former actress self would have shuddered, which says it all really, she was always getting her knickers in a twist. And now there is work that is muddled with love: writing a book with a British publishing house called Saltyard Books and a US one called Grand Central Publishing, a project so good and fitting it makes me want to open a bottle of wine, drink it all, dance on a table and then fall off.

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I have a nearly year to write the book, which is called Five Quarters, Recipes from a Roman kitchen. First and foremost it will be a recipe book, a distinctly Roman one, but one in which the recipes are woven together by stories, seasons, daily life, people, pictures and other pieces. In short it will be rather like my blog, only neater, with more rhyme and reason and edited by those who know how to use semicolons correctly and recognise when 800 words should be 400.

I plan to talk about the book here, not too much, but enough to make sense of what is happening in my life and more importantly in my kitchen. Keeping notes about the book here is also a way to include you all, after all you are as much a part of this book as the market, my butcher, my baker or my family. It is thanks to you all reading and cooking along that I am where I am now. I feel full of appreciation, thank you.

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And so the recipe,  panzanella, or bread salad, a Tuscan dish, but one also found on Roman tables, a dish it had taken me a while to understand. Which is slightly ridiculous considering how simple it is to make. My panzanella hesitation arose from my reluctance to acknowledge that panzanella is made from old bread dampened back to life with water. It was the dampening you see, the idea of wetting bread until soft and soggy then squeezing, it just seemed odd.

As so often the case I needed to watch someone else, something I am doing rather a lot these days. When I arrived at Jo’s house there were three or four hunks of old bread (excellent quality coarse country bread) sitting in a bowl of water, wallowing really. Once they were soft and soaked, she ripped the bread into rough pieces and then got me to squeeze away the excess water and then break the bread into soft crumbs in a large bowl.

Traditionally panzanella was little more than dampened bread, salt, oil, vinegar and fantasy, a dish born out of necessity and resourcefulness, something Romans were (and to a certain extent still are) very good at. If they were available, chopped tomatoes and their juices, ripped basil, cucumber, onion, olives or anchovy might be added to the unchanging foundation of damp bread, olive oil, salt and a sharpening douse of vinegar.

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Like Jo, I added chopped tomatoes, cucumber, mild red onion and lots of ripped basil. I was generous with the olive oil and careful with the red wine vinegar (just enough to sharpen, not too much as to shock, which is obviously a matter of taste.)  I let the panzanella sit for an hour before serving, so the crumbs could soak up the flavours and then settle down again.

If like me you are used to rather more modern interpretations of panzanella, of bowls of toasted cubes, of garlic rubbed chunks, of pretty things with peaches, soft greens, and heirloom tomatoes, this might come as a bit of a surprise, being is it is a soft, sodden tumble, a damp salad more reminiscent of cous cous than bread, even though it is unmistakably bread.

However panzanella made this way makes more sense, it is also good, tasty, full and fitting for these last days of summer. Bread, love, fantasy, work, and lunch, what more could I want. A drink of course, make mine a prosecco.

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Panzanella   Bread salad

Jo’s recipe

serves 4 as lunch (with a chop or two) or six as part of an antipasti.

  • 6 thick slices of old (good quality) country bread. Sourdough works.
  • cold water
  • 6 ripe, flavoursome tomatoes
  • a small red onion
  • a small cucumber
  • a handful of fresh basil leaves
  • salt
  • extra virgin olive oil as required
  • red wine vinegar

Put the slices of bread in a bowl, sprinkle generously with cold water and leave for 20 minutes.

Wash and small dice the tomatoes making sure to catch any juices. Peel and finely slice the red onion. Peel and dice the cucumber (cutting away the central seeds of you feel they are bitter.) Rip the basil leaves into small spices.

Using your hands tear and crumble the damp bread into rough crumbs and rags, squeezing it over the sink if it feel too damp. Put the bread back in the bowl. Add the chopped vegetables (and juices) to the bread. Sprinkle generously with salt, douse with olive oil and sprinkle with a little red wine vinegar. Use your hands to mix and turn the salad. Allow to sit for 30 minutes. Mix again and serve.

Notes.

Good bread is fundamental, coarse country bread or sourdough works well, bad bread will collapse into a gluey mess. It should be at least two days old, so firm, hard even. The way you wet the bread depends on how hard it is! Day old bread might only need a sprinkle – Vincenzo’s Nonna waved the slices under the tap, back and forth. Some people pour an inch of water into the bowl and then lay the slices in the water, like my child in a puddle. Really hard bread, might need a proper bath-like soak and then a blooming good squeeze, after all the salad should be damp but not wet. It is up to you if you rip the bread into rags or break it into crumbs. If you find the flavour of raw red onion too strong, soak the slices in a half water/half vinegar solution for 20 minutes before adding them to the salad, this will take away the onion punch but leave the savory- sweetness.

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Another note – I apologise if you are seeing an advert here, I had no idea, it is very annoying but the price you pay for an otherwise brilliant wordpress blog. I am getting them removed.

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Filed under antipasti, bread, food, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, Roman food, salads, summer food, vegetables

Bright bulb

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Yesterday it poured in Rome, rain and black smoke both, reminding us there was pontificating in progress. Then at about eight, the black smoke gave way to white and la fumata bianca poured from the copper chimney on the roof of the Sistine chapel, meaning the scarlet clad cardinals had chosen their new pope. It never stopped raining. Unaccustomed as I am to either watching Italian TV or considering catholic concerns I did both. Even I was moved by the sea of jubilant humanity in piazza San Pietro and the roaring cheer as a pensive Papa Francesco uttered buona sera. 

There’s been more than enough pontificating about conclaves, cardinals and commanding! I’m not about to do any more of it here. Well apart from noting that although we’re diametrically opposed on countless matters, I’m glad to hear Papa Francesco’s views on single mothers, papel footwear and taking the bus, and that I just hope he’s given the space and opportunity to exercise his reputed political canniness and reforming drive. Dog knows they need it.

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Oranges and fennel however, there hasn’t been nearly enough pontificating about either around here! So if you don’t mind I’ll do some today. If I was quicker and sharper I’d have bought blood oranges, their scarlet juice – reminiscent of the cardinals cassocks and conviction – bleeding and staining the wooden work surface. I am neither quick, sharp or inclined to scrub so orange oranges it is.

Lately I’ve been buying my greens and citrus from the local farmers market that takes place every weekends in the Ex-Mattatoio. This doesn’t mean I’ve been neglecting my market: the recently relocated but still thriving Testaccio mercato! We still go there faithfully. What can I say, semi-maternity-leave and an excuse to eat warm brioche whilst admiring artichokes and listening to market banter spliced with profanities: we go six days a week. Then on Sunday, the day Testaccio market rests, we walk that little bit further, curving our way along the river to The Farmers Market occupying one of the buildings in the vast sprawling complex that is the Ex-Mattatoio.

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I’ve talked about the Ex -Mattaotio before. Once the principle slaughter-house for the whole of Rome, it’s an expansive patchwork of buildings, enclosures, thoroughfares and vast open spaces where animals once roamed. A place all the more extraordinary for being in the middle of a city like Rome. Closed for butchery business since 1975 it’s now part modern art gallery, organic supermarket, social club, concert venue, music school, shelter for the (poor) horses that drag Rome’s carriages, gypsy camp, stark wasteland and at the weekend, farmers market.

You’d be advised to arrive early, especially on Sundays. Naturally leavened bread, salumi, sheep’s milk cheese, olive oil, nuts, eggs, pasta, beans and grains, mushrooms, organic meat and the nicest, freshest produce you could hope to find all direct from bona-fide local producers is gathered under the high-pitched roof of the atmospheric pavilion. The air is always slightly damp, bosky and full of gastronomic promise. On Sunday I bought a piece of aged pecorino, a slice of guanciale, a kilo of cicoria selvatica: a dark green tangle of wild leaves, four artichokes, two deeply curved bulbs of fennel and a dozen matt-skinned, bright leaved oranges.

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Which brings us to todays recipe, an assembly really, one of my favorites, a wisp of Sicily: oranges, fennel and black olives. Now they may seem an unlikely trio, but fennel, orange and olives go together so well, the Ahmad Jamel Trio of insalata. The crisp, clean and sweet tasting bulb with its faintly anise perfume and liquorice nip seems to enhance the sweet/sharp juiciness of the citrus, it’s flesh: firm and creamy contrasting with the soft languorous segments. The dark, baked olives: bitter, meaty and leathery compliment and contrast both orange and fennel.

The key is to pare away every trace of peel and pith from the oranges before cutting then into slender rounds and slicing the fennel lengthways as thin as thin can be into almost transparent arcs. Once cut, you arrange your orange rounds and paper-thin slices of fennel on a plate or platter. You can fan artistically, interweave cunningly or simply scatter hopefully. To finish you punctuate your orange and white assembly with black olives – the coal-black slightly wrinkled oven baked ones work well – sprinkle with coarse salt and then dress with plenty of good extra virgin olive oil.

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We had our salad of sorts with chickpeas – just cooked so still warm – dressed with coarse salt and an embarrassing amount of olive oil. There was bread too, obviously, how else would you mop up the puddle of olive oil and salty citrus, how else would you nudge the ill-behaved chickpeas onto your fork.

Look for sharply white, firm and bulbous sweet or Florentine fennel. Fennel with deep curves. Fat bottomed fennel. You may well come across flatter elongated bulbs, save them for braising or slow cooking. As for the oranges: sweet, really juicy naval are ideal. Pare away the peel carefully and set it aside for an appealing project.

The perfect antidote to downpours of rain or other bothersomeness. I also like this salad with grilled chicken or fish.

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Orange, fennel and black olive salad. 

serves 2

  • 2 large, very juicy oranges
  • 1 large bulb of fennel
  • a handful of black olives, ideally the wrinkled oven baked ones
  • salt
  • black pepper (optional)
  • best extra virgin olive oil

Using a sharp knife, slice away the very top and bottom from the oranges so they sit flat. Then following the contours of the fruit carefully pare away the peel and pith. Using a serrated knife, slice the oranges crosswise into 1/4 rounds.

Cut away the stems, remove any damaged or particularly tough layers and trim the base of the fennel bulb. Reserve the feathery fronds. Halve fennel bulb lengthwise and then cut each half – again lengthways – into paper-thin slices .

Arrange the arcs of fennel and rounds of orange on a large plate. Dot the salad with either whole or slivers of black olives. Using scissors snip over the feathery fronds. Sprinkle with coarse salt (black pepper too if you so wish) and then dress with plenty of extra virgin olive oil.

Eat.

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Filed under fennel, oranges, rachel eats Italy, Rachel's Diary, recipes, salads, winter recipes

Wilting in Rome.

It’s too darn hot. At least it is for me. Vincenzo on the other hand is delighted by the soaring temperatures and assumes the Gecko position whenever possible. Such unreasonable weather however, like having your tonsils out, has a gastronomic benefit. Namely, that you can – with absolutely no need for justification or adherence to acknowledged meal times – consume as much ice-cream, sorbet, granita, jelly, ice-cold blancmange and panna cotta as you wish. In such weather it’s also permissable, advisable even when you feel the wilt, to stop whatever you are doing, roll up your sleeves and cut yourself a vast wedge – this is no time for dainty slices – of ice-cold watermelon. Vincenzo likes to squeeze some lemon juice over his. Shun all offers of cutlery and approach the eating of your wedge with slightly aggressive relish.

Until last year I’d never done anything with watermelon other than eat it in the manner described above. Then last year in Umbria my brother Ben and I made watermelon juice and then watermelon granita. Both were a great success, and thus my watermelon repertoire broadened from one to three; the wedge, the juice and the granita,

I’d read about watermelon and feta salad and watermelon and toasted haloumi salad and I’d been mildly interested but not convinced. Then a couple of weeks ago my Mum, Jenifer, rang with important news. Her voice was slightly urgent, and the line wasn’t terribly good. I felt the surge of panic that’s becoming more frequent and familiar as my parents get older and I stay in Italy.

It subsided as she proceeded to tell me with infectious enthusiasm the important news, green fingered news, the news about her garden. First the broad beans, and how they would be ready by the time I came back. ‘Don’t forget the pecorino when you come’ she said. ‘A nice big piece from Volpetti to eat with the broad beans.’ Then she talked about the gooseberries, the baby lettuces, the chard, courgettes, the rocket. Once I was fully up-to-date with garden progress, we talked about this, that, and a surprising and very good salad she had eaten at the Chelsea Physic Garden restaurant during her gardening course.

There were big pieces of ripe, sweet watermelon‘ she explained. ‘Surprisingly big pieces, with cubes of feta cheese, good feta, and some of those really wrinkled black olives, you know the sort?’

I think so‘ I replied. ‘You mean the wrinkled, very black, oven baked ones you used to buy from the Athenian grocer in Bayswater?

Exactly‘ said Mum. ‘There was some red onion, sliced very finely’ another long pause. ‘Oh and parsley, lots of parsley, chopped very roughly so you could really see the leaves.

Lemon juice? Olive oil?’

Of course‘ she said.

My Mum was right – she usually is when it comes to food related matters – it’s a surprisingly good salad. It’s delicious actually, good food for these searingly hot days. The crisp, cool, sweetness of the melon, the dark, briny olives, the creamy, salty feta, fragrant parsley, mild onion and the bright citrus make for a wonderful combination. I have made it several times now, tweaking and testing. Fresh mint makes an excellent addition, as many of you have already discovered, after all. this salad is well documented. On this occasion I added some cucumber which was nice, but mainly because it was such a tasty cucumber which is a rare thing these days. I suggest adding cucumber if you really like it – I do – otherwise it’s superfluous.

The watermelon should be ripe, sweet and well chilled, the onion red and mild. Toss the salad gently with your hands, it’s the best way. Serve immediately.

I have been eating this for lunch with bread, but I imagine it could be a good starter for a summer supper or part of a rambling BBQ.

Watermelon, cucumber, feta and black olive salad

Inspired by Mum’s Lunch at the Chelsea physic garden

Serves 2 as lunch, 4 as a starter. If this was a starter for supper I’d serve it alongside a plate of prosciutto.

  • a small, mild red onion
  • A handful of parsley
  • A sprig of mint
  • a few black olives (I use greek Kalamata or ideally the wrinkled oven baked ones)
  • 600g ripe, red, juicy watermelon
  • a small cucumber (optional)
  • 100g feta cheese
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • lemon or lime juice to taste
  • black pepper

Peel and chop the onion in two and slice each half carefully into slim half moons.

Pull the parsley leaves from the stalks, wash and pat them dry. Then chop the parsley very coarsely, you want nice leafy pieces. Do the same with the mint

Remove the rind and pips from the watermelon, and cut into approximately 2cm chunks.

Peel the cucumber and cut it into 2cm cubes.

Cut the feta into rough 2cm cubes. Stone the olives.

Put the watermelon, cucumber, feta, parsley, mint, onion and black olives into a shallow bowl. Then spoon over the olive oil, add a good squeeze of lemon juice and a twist of black pepper. Then using your hands toss the salad very gently so that the feta and melon don’t lose their shape.

Taste, and add more lemon or lime juice, olive oil or pepper if you think necessary.

Serve immediately.

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Filed under food, fruit, parsley, recipes, salads, summer food, watermelon