Category Archives: spring recipes

Layer upon layer

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Lately I’ve been thinking about layers. Mostly mundane ones: clothes, coats and covers, the management of which occupies a ridiculous amount of my time, what with a child and March’s capricious climate. Not that this ridiculous amount of time ever seems to pay off. I am, it seems, destined to always get it wrong and we end up either hot and bothered, cold and cantankerous or simply soaking wet.

My almost impressive ability to misjudge meteorological matters was less important when it was just me. But now I have a small boy clamped to my chest or clutching my hand, a small inappropriately dressed 18 month-old boy whose every sniff and sneeze precipitates a chorus of street tutting and disapproval –  ‘Non si fa cosi signora! Povero bambino‘ –  I wish I could judge the layers better! At least once in a while.

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Inappropriately dressed we’ve been walking in search of less mundane and more intriguing layers. Armed with Elizabeth Speller’s book of ten guided walks – of which we have now completed seven –  we’ve been discovering Rome anew, observing layer upon layer of her glorious and inglorious past and her shambolic and sublime present. Of course the great baroque facades, imperial ruins and palazzi of renaissance princes are stupendous. As are the tiny piazze, labyrinthine cobbled alleys and half forgotten fountains. But it’s the unexpected and incongruous that really arrests me, when fragments, as ES puts it, ‘burst forth.’

A single arch of an ancient edifice rising forlornly between two 19th century apartment blocks, a 2000 year old column holding up a tenement kitchen, a routine hole for a routine check by the Roman water board that has been appropriated by archeologists, a mechanics workshop built into an ancient pile of broken pots, an ancient arch – onto which an unsupervised dog is relieving himself – marooned in the middle of the pavement beside a busy road. Antiquity bursting forth and then just sitting there nonchalantly while perfectly modern lives roar or meander by. Layer upon layer.

At home there have been layers of lasagne.

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It has taken me a year to lift the pasta maker out of its box and clamp it to the work surface. I’m as proficient at procrastination as I am meteorological misjudgment. If the truth be known the chrome plated steel Imperia would still be languishing in cardboard at the bottom of the cupboard were it not for Paola: my friend and lasagne teacher. I met Paola a few years ago when she hosted a party for our mutual friend Sergio in her garden. It had been noted that we’d get on and that Paola was an excellent cook, We did and she is, particularly when it comes to la lasagna.

Before coming to Italy I was deeply suspicious of lasagna, traumatized by too many encounters with thick yellow sheets that managed  – quite impressively – to be both over and undercooked, big bulging layers of very busy ragu, floods of floury white sauce and cheddar crusts. Thud, squelch, indigestion. It was awful. I was scarred for lasagna life. So scarred, that even the more refined, relatively well executed lasagna left me unmoved. I decided it was best that I just let lasagna lie.

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I almost spurned the slice Vincenzo brought over to me during the party. Then I realised it was unlike any lasagna I’d ever seen. Paola rolls her fresh handmade egg pasta as thin as thin can be, which renders it light, extremely delicate and allows it to be the absolute protagonist, appearing in eight or nine layers. The sauces and others layers. whether they be a rich ragu, sautéed vegetables, ricotta, mozzarella, parmesan, a limpid white sauce are all merely supporting artists. Very important supporting artists mind: proud, present and bestowing deep flavour, but never swamping or overwhelming the star: the almost transparent leaves of pasta. The slice looked a little like a closed accordion, it managed to be delicate and imponderous and yet richly flavored and substantial. I ate three slices. I then lay in a somnolent posture under a tree.

Some years later I’m standing in Paola’s kitchen in her house near Velletri, a town about an hour south of Rome. It is a vast enviable space, with a pale marble-topped work surface, wood burning stove and wooden table long enough for twelve. It’s a comfortable and unpretentious space though, with nothing twee or themed about it, no suggestions of whimsical rustic. I note that I could spend a lot of time in this kitchen. We drink coffee and then roll up our sleeves, tie on our aprons and make lasagne.

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First we make our dough, kneading methodically and rhythmically until it’s smooth and soft as putty. Then we position ourselves bedside Paola’s chrome Imperia, launch a blizzard of flour over the worksuface and then begin passing the pieces of pasta between the metal rollers.  9 pieces, passed one by one through the six settings. That’s 54 rounds. 54 raptious rounds as rolling pasta is one of the nicest kitchen tasks I’ve undertaken in a very long time.

It never ceases to amaze me how a good and patient teacher can make even the most complicated of tasks seem entirely manageable and you – the student – feel capable and just a little chuffed. Not that rolling pasta is particularly complicated. You do need guidance though and some sound counsel about cutting, folding, feeding, dusting with flour and how to manage the ever-increasing lengths of soft, egg lasagne. I’ve tried as best I can to include Paola’s guidance in the recipe below. I do hope it is helpful. I would encourage you to find a teacher too, a patient and capable one.

And so the filling.  Being, as it is, the season for the tender-hearted warrior of the vegetable world, Rome’s glorious globe, a lasagna with artichokes and ricotta seems appropriate, at least it did in our flat last Monday. Having made your pasta and set it aside to rest, you set about preparing your other layers. First the artichokes, which need trimming, slicing and then cooking in olive oil and wine – a slow sauté/braise really until they are extremely tender. Extremely tender: a soft, creamy mush really but with some discernible pieces.

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Next you make a panful of béchamel, which needs to be loose, fluid and pourable. And finally you whip the ricotta into a light, lactic cream with whole milk and season it prudently. It’s also important to eat at a little of your ricotta cream on toast while you watch your son putting oranges and your purse in the washing machine.

Having rolled the pasta as thin as you dare, you need to par-boil it. A vast pan of well salted, fast boiling water is important, as is an equally large bowl of cold water and plenty of clean dry tea towels arranged strategically all over your kitchen  – which will make it feel a little like a chinese laundry. Bold and brave moves are best. Drop five sheets of lasagne into the water. Once the water comes back to the boil, let the sheets lumber and roll for a minute before scooping them out as you would a slippy, wriggling toddler from a bath tub, plunging them into the cold water (to halt the cooking and prevent sticking, the curse of long, exquisitely thin lasagne) and then spreading them out on the tea towels.

Now is all that’s left is to assemble, to put layer upon layer. A layer of Pasta, a layer of artichokes, béchamel and parmesan, another of pasta, the next of artichokes, ricotta and parmesan, another of pasta and so and so and so. Use scissors to snip the pasta into shape and do not be afraid of patches. Keep in mind the layers of artichoke, ricotta and bèchamel should be scarce and subtle sploges rather than a dense layer, supporting, bestowing flavour but never dominating. 15 minutes in the oven and then a 15 minute rest.

Layer upon layer for lunch. And what a good lunch: delicate and imponderous and yet richly flavored and substantial. A lunch during which I felt proud as punch. Paola ti voglio bene. This is may well become my Sunday best.

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This recipe is – like most of my posts – long and possibly rather daunting (and/or trying.)  The length is due to all the simple but numerous phases, please don’t let it deter you. Of course time, effort and organisation are required! But it is undeniably, irrefutably, assolutamente worth every minute, knead, rock and roll, chop, whisk and blooming-lovely layer.

Lasagne ai carciofi e ricotta – Artichoke and ricotta Lasagna

Inspired by Paola, with sound advice from Marcella Hazan and Franco and Ann Taruschio

serves 6

for the pasta

  • 300 g farina di semola (semolina flour) or plain pasta flour
  • 3 medium-sized free range eggs
  • a pinch of salt

for the artichoke layer

  • 8 large /10 medium globe artichokes
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • salt
  • a glass of white wine

for the bèchamel sauce

  • 50 g butter
  • 50 g plain flour
  • 700 ml whole milk
  • salt
  • black or white pepper
  • nutmeg

For the ricotta layer

  • 300 g ricotta
  • 150 ml whole milk
  • salt
  • black pepper

and

  • 100 g parmesan cheese
  • olive oil
  • salt and pepper

Begin the pasta.  Make a mound of flour on the work surface and scoop a deep hollow in the center. Sprinkle over a pinch of salt. Break the eggs into the hollow and then using your fingers beak the yolks and start working the egg into the flour. Bring the dough together until you have a smoothly integrated mixture.

Knead the dough, pushing it forward with the heel of your palm. Fold the dough in half, give it a half turn and press it hard against the heel of your palm again. Knead for a full eight minutes by which time the dough should be smooth and soft as putty. Cover the pasta with cling film and set it aside.

Prepare the artichokes. Prepare the artichokes by first pulling away the darker tougher leaves, tugging 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. As you work, rub the cut edges of the artichoke with a cut lemon or sit them in a bowl of acidulated water. Slice away the stem and cut it into thick match sticks and then cut the bulb into 8 wedges. In a heavy based pan, warm the olive oil and then saute the artichoke pieces briefly. Add a pinch of salt and the wine, stir and reduce the flame so the artichokes bubble gently. Cover the pan and allow the artichokes to steam/braise for about 20 minutes or until they are extremely tender. The artichokes must not dry out, but stay extremely moist so add more water if necessary. Mash the artichokes gently with the back of the wooden spoon so they collapse into a creamy mush but with some discernible chunks.

Make the béchamel. In small pan heat the milk and bay leaf until it almost reaches boiling point. Remove the milk from the heat and then leave to sit for 5 minutes. Heat the butter in a heavy based pan; as soon as it starts to foam, whisk in the flour. Keep whisking steadily for 2 minutes, then remove the pan from the heat. Add a little of the milk and whisk until you have a smooth paste. Return the pan to the heat and then add the rest of the milk, whisking continuously until the milk boils. Season with salt, black pepper and a grating of nutmeg. Lower the heat and simmer, stirring and whisking frequently for about 10 minutes or until the sauce is thick.

Prepare the ricotta. Using a fork beat and whip the ricotta with the milk until you have a soft, light paste, season with salt and  black pepper.

Roll and cook pasta. Cut the ball of pasta into 9 pieces (the general rule is the number of pieces should be 3 times the number of eggs. So 3 eggs = 9 pieces). Sprinkle the work surface with flour. Set the pasta machine to the widest setting. Flatten one of the pieces of dough by pummeling it with your hands and then run it through the machine. Fold the pasta as you would an envelope by bringing the two ends over each other, so the piece is a third of its length, and run it through the machine again. Repeat with the other 8 pieces.

Close the gap in the rollers down by one notch and run the pasta pieces through one by one. Continue thinning the pieces progressively closing down the notches one by one until the pasta is as thin as you want it. Paola rolls her pasta through all six settings so it is impressively thin. You may need to cut the pieces in half.

Bring a large pan of well salted water to a fast boil. Prepare a large bowl of cold water. On your largest work surface spread out clean tea towels. Lower 5 sheets at a time into the water. Once the water has come back to a fast boil allow the sheets to cook for 1 minute before scooping them out, plunging them into the cold water and then laying them out on the clean tea towels. Repeat until all the sheets are cooked.

Set oven to 200 ° and grate the parmesan.

Assemble la lasagna. Rub a little olive oil and a smear of béchamel over the base of the tin ( a 34 cm tin is ideal). Arrange a layer of lasagne first, try not to have more than 6 mm of overlap, use scissors to cut the lasagne. Spread a thin layer of artichoke on the pasta, then a layer of béchamel and sprinkle over a little parmesan. Now another layer of pasta, another (thin) layer of artichoke and one of ricotta, more parmesan and a little olive oil. Repeat putting artichokes and parmesan in each layer but alternating bèchamel and ricotta. You should finish with the eighth layer of pasta. Spread over the last of the béchamel, sprinkle with parmesan and drizzle over a little olive oil.

Bake the lasagna in the pre heated oven for 15 minutes by which time it should have a golden crust and bubble at the edges, Allow the lasagna to rest for at least 15 minutes before bringing to the table and serving directly from the dish.

Eat layer upon layer.

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Filed under artichokes, food, fresh egg pasta, In praise of, pasta and rice, rachel eats Italy, recipes, ricotta, spring recipes, Uncategorized

Against the strain of modern life

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It’s time. Well almost. In late February one of the most beloved and revered varieties of Rome’s favorite vegetable: il carciofo romanesco* comes into her precocious, plump, perennial-thistle prime. Vincenzo, my fruttivendolo informed me as much – without unnecessary alliteration – while trimming with such dextrous speed I could barely discern what his hands or his knife were doing. Not that I needed to discern, I’ve had plenty of impromptu lessons in the art of artichoke trimming from Vincenzo over the last eight years. Plenty! For as in life, I’m enthusiastic but doubtful.

While Luca shouted ‘ball, ball, BALL‘ at anything round, which meant almost everything, we were, after all, standing beside a fruit and vegetable stall, and while Vincenzo trimmed ten artichokes for a stern signora in a fur coat, I chose my five from the crates stacked up against the side of the stall. There may well be a couple of weeks to go, but it’s hard to imagine more glorious globes: heavy in hand, intricate clusters of violet-stained leaves with coarse ribbed stems and silvery glaucous-green leaves. ‘Ball‘ Luca barked at the artichokes. Vincenzo chuckled, blasphemed and gave me an especially nice stem of mentuccia when I told him I was going to trim them myself.

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Vincenzo makes trimming artichokes of all varieties, shapes and sizes look elementary and effortless. Be it a long thorny spinoso, a tiny violet choke no larger than a walnut, a modest green globe or a princely romanesco he whittles away the tough inedible parts with artful and rapid skill. I, on the other hand, can claim no such art, skill or speed. I have however been taught well and practiced enthusiastically and can now trim an artichoke pleasantly enough.

That said, I am not about to proffer trimming advice here! Not yet at least. Rather I suggest you arm yourself with a short sharp knife, a lemon, five globes, a cooks perk (whatever that may be, mine’s a cooking sherry) and watch this. No whimsical folk music, wistful angles and aspirational seasoning in this video, just artichoke whittling advice from Nonna Adriana.

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Unsurprisingly Romans have countless ways of preparing and cooking their favourite vegetable. Inventive and imaginative ways evolved to bring out the best in every variety. When it comes to the prized carciofo romanesco – an almost rudely large but very tender globe that has no thorns or pesky, hairy choke in the center – two ways of cooking prevail. The first and my favourite is Carciofi alla giudia or artichokes Jewish style. A slightly less compact variety of romanesco is trimmed rigorously and then squashed so the leaves splay out in much the same way as a fully opened chrysanthemum. This splayed artichoke flower is then deep-fried until the leaves are deep golden brown, crisp, brittle and charred, the heart within soft and tender. Superb, just superb and best consumed with your fingers if not in prudish company.

The other way of cooking carciofo romanesco (and another large globe varieties) is alla romana, Roman style. Having carefully trimmed your chokes, you open up the central cavity with your thumbs and then fill this space with a mixture of very finely chopped mint, garlic and possibly parsley. The mint is fundamental, it pairs brilliantly with the soft, curiously metallic, elegant flavour of the artichoke. In Rome mentuccia is used but normal mint will suffice. Once stuffed, the artichokes are arranged flower downwards/ stem upwards in a pan (along with the rest of the stems if your pan is too shallow) and some olive oil, wine and water. The pan is then covered with a damp cloth and tight-fitting lid before the artichokes are cooked slowly – braised and steamed really – over a medium flame under the liquid has all but evaporated and the artichokes are aromatic and meltingly tender.

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At this time of year great platters of carciofi alla romana are to be found in most trattoria, they are a welcome and delightful sight, like wind inverted umberellas, their long upended stems (the best and most delectable part) pointing skywards. They are served as an antipasti or contorno at room temperature with either a little of the cooking liquid or raw extra virgin olive oil poured over. Bread is recommended for mopping up. They really are one of the joys of Roman trattoria in spring. They are an equally joyful and surprisingly straightforward dish to make at home. Really! Despite my doubtful and idle nature and my painfully slow trimming technique, I’m now dedicated to whittling, stuffing and simmering artichokes at home. Home in Rome that is, where artichokes are unquestionably good. But I hear you can find pretty wonderful artichokes in the UK and US now! Thoughts? Opinions?

And the title of the post: Against the strain of modern life or ‘Contro il logorio della vita moderna.‘ It’s an advertising slogan for Cynar a weirdly delicious bitter aperitif based on artichokes that I absolutely adore. Contro il logorio della vita moderna indeed! An impressive claim. But an entirely plausible one if you consider the virtues of artichokes: folic acid, wealth of minerals, fibre, diuretic and laxative properties (now really lets not be shy, these things matter) and not forgetting artichokes are an aphrodisiac. I repeat, an aphrodisiac.  Against the strain of modern life! Well I for one am a believer. So it seems is my son.

You can of course use a knife and fork, but I agree with Marco, fingers are best. Pull away the leaves one by one, making sure you drag them idly though the pool of oil on the way to your mouth. The stem is good if consumed as you might an asparagus spear. The heart, of course, is eaten last.

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Carciofi alla romana Artichokes Roman style

Inspired by the carciofi alla romana I have eaten in various Roman Trattorie with advice from Gillian Riley, Marcella Hazan, Rosa D’Acona, Nonna Adriana and Jane Grigson.

  • 5 large globe artichokes
  • a lemon or bowl of cold water with the juice of a lemon added
  • 2 tbsp very finely chopped parsley (optional)
  • 2 tbsp very finely chopped mint (ideally mentuccia)
  • 2 cloves garlic very finely chopped
  • salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 8 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • glass of white wine

You will need a heavy-based pot with a tight-fitting lid tall enough to accommodate the artichokes which are to go in standing

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 sing a sharp knife, pare away the tough green flesh from the base of the artichokes and the stem. As you work rub the cut edges of the artichoke with a cut lemon or sit them in a bowl of acidulated water

In a bowl mix together the chopped parsley, mint and garlic, add a generous pinch of salt and a few grindings of black pepper. Using your thumbs open up the flower and then press 1/5 of the herb and garlic mixture into the hollow cavity.

Sit the artichokes, top downwards, stems upwards the pan. Add the olive oil, wine and enough water to come on third of the way up the leaves.

Cover the pot with a damp muslin or cotton cloth (or a piece of doubled over kitchen towel) and then put the lid over the cloth. Bring the edges of the cloth back over the top of the pan. Put the pan over a medium/low flame for 40 minutes – the liquid in the pan should bubble and steam purposefully but not aggressively. The artichokes are done when a fork easily pierces the thickest part of the stem near the heart.

When done, use a slotted spoon move the artichokes on to a serving plate – stems up. Allow them to cool to room temperature. Reserve the cooking juices and pour them over the artichokes just before serving. Eat.

* Artichokes are a seasonal crop. The variety I am talking about, il carciofo romanesco castellammare or mammola is cultivated in and around Cerveteri and Ladispoli. It is a winter crop and can be found from November until April. It’s at it’s best however – weather permitting – from the last week of February /first week of March up until the sagra di carciofi in early April. Most other varieties are found later in the spring.

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Filed under antipasti, artichokes, food, In praise of, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats London, Rachel's Diary, recipes, Roman food, spring recipes

The Other Half.

Always one for too much of a good thing, I was tempted to make another batch of gnocchi with the remaining half of my green mound. An absence of ricotta put an end to that idea. An absence of milk nearly put paid to my second spinach plan – a savory courgette and spinach cake – until I remembered the small stout carton of cream sitting, squatting really between the Campari and the Tanqueray in the door of the fridge. Surely something made with milk would be even nicer if made with cream? It is! But I will come to that presently.

The spinach and courgette cake I was plotting was to be a variation on David Tanis’s very good, very green spinach cake. Now the first time I made this spinach cake, it was rather disappointing. This had everything to do with a misreading of the recipe and my distracted, careless, scurrying execution of said cake and nothing to do with David Tanis’s recipe. Having learned my lesson, I made it a second time, reading diligently, sautéing attentively, seasoning the green batter generously, adjusting cooking times to compensate for my oven and keeping a watchful eye as my cake puffed up proudly in oven. My reward was, as promised, a quite lovely green round.

Like the song in which a love-sick teenager finds truth and solace, spinach cake was on heavy rotation for a while – I’m not sure why I didn’t tell you about it here – and I soon discovered that you can indeed have too much of a good thing. Fortunately neither of us wanted things to turn nasty, so we agreed not to see each other for a while. Then last summer when we were all gathered  in Branscombe for the week of my best friend Joanna’s wedding, Joanna’s mum Rosamund made a delicious starter one evening, a pale green, delicate bake which seemed very like a slightly softer, creamier relative of my spinach cake, but made with courgettes. Nostalgia was felt, plans hatched and notes were scribbled.

As usual, I dragged my cooking heels and it wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago, in possession of a half mound of spinach (of which I used only half, the post about the final quarter is still to come) that I finally deciphered my notes about Ros’s dish, grabbed two courgettes, a handsome leek and half a pint of cream and set about making a spinach and courgette cake.

As with David’s Tanis’s recipe, I began by softening leek in little oil and butter over a medium flame. Once the leek was suitably soft, I added rounds of courgette, nudged them around the pan until they were nicely coated with oil and butter before adding a little water, lowering the flame and then letting the leeks and courgettes to bubble and cook gently – half frying/ half braising, for about 15 minutes or until all the liquid has evaporated the courgettes were tender and collapsing. Then I left the green panful to cool.

My spinach (as you know) was already cooked and well-drained (I repeat, water is the enemy) so once the courgette and leeks were cool and transferred to a bowl I added my pile of chopped spinach. Then using my trusty immersion blender, I blitzed the vegetables into a smooth green paste that begged both to be tasted and smeared upon my face. I resisted smearing and simply tasted before adding 5 eggs, cream, grated parmesan, a good grating of nutmeg, an equally good grinding of black pepper and a flick of salt. As I poured the pale creamy- green batter into my reliable non-stick pan I made a mental note  ‘This is the colour I’d like to paint the living room‘ before maneuvering the pan into the oven for about 25 minutes in which time the batter set and puffed gently into a very green cake.

I let the cake settle and cool for a while before cutting it into wedges and serving it with sliced tomatoes – the deeply ribbed ones with thick skins and sweet spicy flesh – and Roscioli bread.

I know I’m courgette biased, but they lend something lovely to this green cake, complimenting the deeply satisfying flavor of the spinach. Tanis’s recipe calls for milk! Cream, as you can probably imagine is another thing entirely, it’s a perfect foil for the green grassy vegetables. The cake is creamier obviously, deeply dairy, luscious and luxurious,. In using cream though, the nutmeg – maybe my favorite spice – becomes even more important, as not only does it perk up the greens no end, but cuts through the dairy, making it less cloying.

I think the cake really does need to rest for at least 40 minutes (and up to 5 hours) after coming out of the oven so it can firm up a little and it’s flavors settle. It is a most delicious wedge, the happy collision of a frittata (which is, as you probably know, an Italian open-faced omelette), a soufflé, a mousse and a savory custard. Lunch.

Last thing, regarding cooking times. David Tanis suggests 40 minutes at 200° for for his spinach cake. In my oven I found this too hot and too long for such a delicate egg and dairy laced thing. I find that 25 minutes or so at 170°is about right so your cake is  gently puffed up and set, but still tender and with a very slight wobble. I love a slight wobble.

Last last thing, a well buttered dish/pie plate will do but a non-stick ovenproof 12″/24cm frying pan is best (I find.)

Spinach and courgette cake

Inspired by Rosamund’s recipe and adapted liberally from David Tanis’s recipe in a Platter of figs – I can’t seem to find a site for the publisher and I am boycotting bloody monopolizing amazon, so please excuse the lack of a link.

Serves 4 as lunch, 8 as a starter.

  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 30g butter
  • 1 medium-sized leek
  • 2 medium courgettes
  • salt
  • 100ml white wine/water
  • 300 g spinach
  • 5 eggs
  • 250 ml fresh cream
  • 50 g grated parmesan
  • freshly grated nutmeg
  • black pepper
Preheat the oven to 170°
 .
Trim the leek and peel off the tough outer layer. Cut the leek into small dice, fill a bowl with water and add the leeks. Agitate the leeks with your hand. Let the dirt and sand settle in the bowl and then scoop the leeks from the water and pat the dry in a clean tea towel. Warm the oil and butter in a heavy based frying pan and then sauté the leek until it is soft and translucent.
 .
Top and tail the courgettes and then slice them into 1/2cm thick rounds. Add the courgette to the leek and stir so each round is well coated with butter.
 .
After a few minutes, raise the heat a little and add the wine/water. Allow it to bubble enthusiastically. Now reduce the heat again and allow the onion and courgettes to bubble and cook gently – half frying/ half braising, giving a stir and nudge every now and then and adding a little more water if the pan looks dry – for about 15 minutes or until the courgettes are very soft tender and collapsing and all the liquid has evaporated. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside to cool.
 .
Soak the spinach in several changes of water and discard any wilted or bruised leaves and trim away any very thick, woody stalks. Put the spinach in a large pan with nothing but the water that clings to the leaves, cover the pan and cook on a low flame until the spinach has collapsed and is tender. This should take about 2 minutes depending on the freshness and age of the spinach.
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Drain the spinach and once it is cool enough, squeeze and press it gently with your hands to eliminate as much water as possible. Chop the spinach roughly and transfer to a bowl.

Add the cooled leek/ courgette mixture to the spinach and then using a hand blender blitz the mixture into a smooth green paste.

Add the cream and eggs to the bowl and blitz again before stirring in the parmesan, a grating of nutmeg, salt and black pepper.

Pour the batter into in ovenproof sauté pan, buttered baking dish or 10-12 inch deep-pie dish and then slide into the oven. Bake uncovered for 30 minutes or until the cake is set but still with a slight tremble/wobble at the center.

Allow the cake to sit, cool and settle for at least 40 minutes before serving in wedges.

I really should learn to not make promises I can’t keep! I apologise, It’s the optimist in me, she’s extremely unrealistic sometimes. A promise I am trying to keep though, is not inflicting too much babyboringness on you all! However as I write about what I’m cooking and eating, and now that Luca is my prefered lunch date, it feels appropriate to mention that alongside breastfeeding (we have surprised ourselves, we are total enthusiasts, quite boring proponents and in it for for the long haul) he’s started eating some proper food. Neither of us could face those purees and all that spoon-feeding and so following in the footsteps of my sister Rosie and my niece Beattie and properly inspired by this brilliant book and site we are having a lot of extremely messy fun

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Filed under antipasti, courgettes, cream, Eggs, food, picnics, Rachel's Diary, recipes, spinach, spring recipes, vegetables

A bag of green.

When buying spinach‘ Jane Grigson reminds us ‘Assess its liveliness, it should have a bouncing, bright appearance‘ and ‘As you stuff it into your bag or basket it should crunch and squeak’

The spinach above, a generous kilo procured from my trusted fruttivendolo Vincenzo, would have pleased Jane Grigson I think, dark forest green, crimped of leaf, plump stemmed, bright and bouncy. Misbehaving and uncooperative, it squeaked and squealed as I squashed it into the bag, an experience not dissimilar to dressing my 7 month old.

Having picked over my green bagful, I gave it a good soak in a sinkful of cold water and then an overenthusiastic rinse before wrestling it, water still clinging to the leaves, into my biggest, heaviest pot – my orange le creuset – disciplining it with the equally heavy lid and putting it over a modest flame.

I never cease to be impressed by the way spinach, if cooked in a heavy pan over a modest flame with no more water than that which still clings to its leaves after a good wash, wilts and collapses into such a neat, obedient pile.

Having admired, washed, wilted and carefully drained your spinach (wateriness is the enemy) the possibilities for your green ball are countless. As a rule I like my spinach with extra virgin olive oil, salt and a squeeze of lemon. I’m also very fond of  wilted spinach reheated with a very very large knob of butter (spinach, like me, absorbs massive quantities of butter and becomes all the more delicious for doing so). I then eat my extremely buttery greens with grilled meat or piled on toast and topped with a poached egg and – if I’m feeling frisky – some hollandaise.

This week however, or last week by the time I post this, I cut my ball in two (later three) and made three green meals: spinach and ricotta gnocchi, a very green pie and a (splendid) tart.

I’ve decided to risk spinach saturation as I think all three green recipes: gnocchi, pie and tart, deserve their own post. I don’t intend to drag things out too much though, a spinach stampede is the plan, all three posts this week! Optimistic and unrealistic am I! We will see. First the gnocchi.

Gnocchi as you know ‘Are little dumplings.” Literally translated, gnoccho means little lump – rather like the one that appears when you bash your head on the kitchen cabinet that needs fixing – so the plural, gnocchi means little lumps. Italians make the most delicious and delightful little lumps, especially from potatoes, sometimes breadcrumbs, semolina or vegetables and they often flavour them with herbs and cheese. Gnocchi are cooked like pasta, but very gently, in plenty of boiling water and then dressed with the appropriate sauce or simply lots and lots of sage infused melted butter.’

Spinach and ricotta gnocchi are, as their name suggests, little dumplings made from spinach and ricotta bound with eggs, parmesan, spiked with nutmeg and dusted with just enough flour to mould them into shape. I’ve written about spinach and ricotta gnocchi before, a recipe that I’ve known and trusted for years. But a couple of weeks ago my friend and cooking companion Alice showed me how she makes gnocchi, a version she learned from Lizzie Cinati at the Winterhaven in Falls Creek. At first glance Alice’s recipe not so very different from the recipe I have made mine! But look closely and you’ll notice very different proportions, an omission, a couple of tweaks and some sage advice about shape and cooking which produces the best spinach and ricotta gnocchi I have ever eaten. I have eaten many.

Alice’s recipe uses the same quantity of ricotta as spinach, so 500g of spinach is mixed with an impressive 500g of ricotta. There is no sautéed onion, just a whole egg, a tablespoon of flour, 100g of grated parmesan and a generous grating of nutmeg to be mixed with the speckled green cream. You let the mixture chill for a couple for hours and then as lunchtime approaches you enlist the help of a fellow gnocchi maker (and a glass of campari on ice) as it’s best if you work swiftly and cook the gnocchi as soon as you possibly can.

The mixture is extremely soft, sticky and seemingly uncontrollable! Have no fear and resist adding more flour. Well floured hands, patience and practice and you will find a way to mould and shape the mixture into imprecise lozenges roughly the size of a brazil nut. There are two ways to work. Either using two teaspoons to form the mixture into lozenges and then rolling them immediately in flour. Alternatively you can dust your work-suface with flour, scoop out a generous handful of pale green mixture and with very well- floured hands roll it into a log, flatten it slightly and then cut the log into slices before tweaking the shape of each slice into the requisite form. Sit the gnocchi on a tray dusted with flour.

To cook the gnocchi you bring a large pan of well salted water to a very gentle boil. Carefully drop 12 gnocchi at a time into the water. After a few minutes they will be puffy, proud as punch, soft and have bobbed to the surface. Using a slotted spoon lift them out onto a warm serving plate and pour over some of the sage butter and keep warm in a cool oven. Drop in more gnocchi and repeat the process. When all the gnocchi are cooked, pour over the rest of the sage butter, turn them gently to coat with butter and serve at once with more freshly grated parmesan

I needed no convincing about spinach and ricotta gnocchi, 12 or 14 freshly poached morsels, like green speckled pillows sitting in a pool of sage butter and dusted with parmesan, were already amongst my favorite things to eat. This recipe which produces some of the lightest, plumpest, most delicate and softly textured gnocchi I have ever eaten has simply fortified that conviction and nudged spinach and ricotta gnocchi even higher up my list. The key I think is the impressive quality of ricotta, the whisper of flour, the pleasing shape and reminder about cooking as soon as you can after making your gnocchi.

One of the nicest ways to eat your greens.

Gnocchi are usually eaten as a primo piatto (first course) but they make a fine main course especially if served with a sliced tomato salad, piedmontese peppers and some nice bread to mop up the sage butter. It is worth seeking out the best ricotta – ideally Ricotta di pecora (sheeps milk ricotta).

Spinach and Ricotta gnocchi

serves 4 (6 at push but who likes to push!)

  • 5oog / 1 lb fresh spinach
  • 500g / 1 llb ricotta
  • large egg
  • 100g freshly grated parmesan
  • 1 tbsp flour and more for dusting
  • a grating of nutmeg
  • salt
For the sage butter
  • 100g best butter
  • 10 fresh sage leaves

Soak the spinach in several changes of water and discard any wilted or bruised leaves and trim away any very thick, woody stalks. Put the spinach in a large pan with nothing but the water that clings to the leaves, cover the pan and cook on a medium flame until the spinach has collapsed and is tender. This should take about 5 minutes depending on the freshness and age of the spinach.

Drain the spinach and once it is cool enough, squeeze and press it gently with your hands to eliminate as much water as possible. Chop the spinach roughly and transfer to a bowl

Add the ricotta to the spinach mixture and stir gently but firmly with a wooden spoon. Next add the egg, the grated parmesan,   flour and a grating of nutmeg. Keep stirring the ingredients until they are evenly mixed, taste, add salt if necessary, stir again. Let the mixture rest in the fridge for a couple of hours.

Dust your hands and a work surface with flour and working quickly shape the gnocchi into lozenges the size of a brazil nut and sit them on a tray dusted with flour.

Bring a large pan a well salted water to a gentle boil, not too hard or the gnocchi will disintegrate.

Put the butter in a small frying pan and turn the heat to medium. When the butter stops foaming and it starts turning tawny but not brown, add the sage leaves. Cook for a few seconds, turning the leaves once and then remove from the heat

Now begin cooking the gnocchi. Carefully drop 12 gnocchi at a time into the gently boiling water. After a few minutes they will be puffy, soft and have floated to the surface. Using a with slotted spoon lift them out onto a warm serving plate and pour over some of the sage butter and keep warm in a cool oven. Drop in more gnocchi and repeat the process.

When all the gnocchi are cooked, pour over the rest of the sauce, turn them gently to coat with butter and serve at once with more freshly grated parmesan.

‘A bag of green – the second half’ coming soon.

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Filed under food, gnocchi, rachel eats Italy, ricotta, spinach, spring recipes, vegetables

7 years and lunch

It’s been seven years, almost to the day, since I absconded to Italy. Rash, wayward and troubling it may have been, but my departure in March 2005 was, and remains, one of the better decisions of my life. After all, if I hadn’t come to Italy I might never have discovered (that amongst other things) I like, with a certain passion, courgettes. Which are zucchini to many of you,  and indeed me after seven years. It wasn’t that I disliked zucchini before arriving in Italy! Dislike suggests strong feelings, judgment and an opinion, whereas my feelings about the tubular baby marrow Cucurbita pepo were – like football, most gadgets, inner soles and Celine Dion – those of indifference.

I’d spied vast, tumbling heaps of zucchini most a familiar forest green either shaped like baby zeppelins or stout grenades, some bright yellow, others golden, many a seductive pale green – at markets on my chaotic travels round southern Italy and Sicily, most notably at the notorious and fascinating La Vuccaria market in Palermo. But it wasn’t until I arrived in Rome, settled comfortably in Testaccio and began going to the Market each day that I really took note, particularly the striking zucchine romanesche.

Zucchine romanesche are pale creamy-green mottled with white. They are slim, elegant things that often curve this way and that and are fluted like the Corinthian columns inside the Pantheon. If they are properly fresh they come crowned with a golden headdress, a fragile, rich-yellow flame-like flower.  Their creamy white flesh is compact with tiny seeds, sweetly tender, seemingly the collision of a good cucumber, the sweet stem of brocoli, a piece of pumpkin and yellow melon. When cooked, the flesh is even more delicious, tender, sweet – but undeniably savory – and beguilingly creamy.

My zucchini indifference was short-lived once I settled in Rome. Romans prize their zucchini especially zucchine romanesche and do marvelous things with them. Cut into rounds, slices, diced or grated they are sautéed lightly in olive oil until tender and served just so or used as a sauce for pasta. Fat match sticks of zucchini are dipped in batter or flour and then fried until tantalizingly crisp in hot oil and served like potato chips in waxed paper bags, a clandestine snack best eaten with your fingers: soon shiny with oil, while walking in the sun along via Galvani. Zucchini are grilled, baked, braised, make a fitting filling for a frittata or ideal ingredient in risotto. Long thin strips are roasted and charred on a griddle pan then left to lounge in olive oil with fresh basil leaves before being served as an antipasti.

At many of our lunches at Volpetti Alice and I have eaten zucchini stewed gently with fresh tomatoes and basil, mopping up the juices with crusty bread. Left whole, zucchini are stuffed with seasoned meat or breadcrumbs and then baked, or better still,  braised in tomato sauce. Small, particularly tender specimens are boiled or steamed and then served with good olive oil, salt and maybe a little lemon juice or sliced as thin as paper and the tucked in warm pizza bianca with mozzarella. Thinly sliced zucchini are also dressed with oil and lemon and served as a salad. And then there are the flowers, i fiori di zucca. I fell for the flowers first, beautiful to look upon but even better to eat: torn into a salad, snipped into an omelette, stuffed with ricotta or best of all, with mozzarella and anchovy, dipped in batter and then fried until crisp and golden in very hot oil and eaten while tongue scaldingly hot with a glass of prosecco.

Having fallen for its charms, I took to cooking zucchini with a degree of over enthusiasm which is well documented here, in a kind of cabonara, Fusilli with courgettes,  Frittata, Fiori di zucca, and now this Pasta con salsa di zucchini e pancetta – Pasta with courgette sauce and bacon. A particularly clumsy name in English I know, but don’t let that deter you.

This recipe has much in common with both Fusilli with courgettes and another of my favorites, a weekly lunch and fixed point in my otherwise chaotic routine: pasta e broccoli. Like broccoli, zucchini when cooked until extremely tender in garlic infused olive oil – collapse, and with a little assistance from a fork, potato masher or cautious blitz with an immersion blender, create a soft creamy sauce for the pasta. This sauce also happens to be my favorite colour.

I am very happy to eat my pasta wearing just a green coat. The pasta that is, not me, unfortunately I don’t possess a green coat. But lunch is even more delicious when the green sauce is dotted with some diced pancetta or prosciutto that has been fried until tantalizingly crisp: the salty pork giving a kick to the good but undeniably mild and gentle (arguably insipid if not seasoned correctly) zucchini sauce.

This recipe, like so many of the nicest everyday pastas is pleasingly straightforward to make, but depends on good ingredients: nice olive oil, plump garlic and young, fresh zucchini are key. You could, as with pasta and broccoli, boil or steam the zucchini until soft, drain them and then finish them off in a frying pan with olive oil and garlic before mashing them. However as zucchini have a tendency to become water-logged and soggy especially when boiled, I think it’s best that you cook the zucchini in a frying pan, first with oil and butter before adding a little wine and water, This way the zucchini half fry/half braise and by the end of the cooking time are beautifully tender and much of the excess water has evaporated away.

I use an immersion blender – cautiously – to reduce the zucchini to a creamy sauce, but if you prefer a coarser more textured sauce I suggest using a fork. Is there anything else I need to tell you? Probably, but this post is already far too long for such a simple recipe and my son is eating the computer cable.

True to the Oxford English dictionary, my roots and as so as not to confuse my brother, I have referred to zucchini as courgettes in the recipe below. Best served with a glass of white wine obviously.

Pasta con salsa di zucchini e pancetta

Pasta with Courgettes and bacon

Serves 4

  • 6 medium / 9 small young, fresh, firm courgettes (about 800g)
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • A small knob of butter
  • salt
  • 100 ml white wine
  • 100ml water
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 100g pancetta or bacon
  • 500g spaghetti, penne, fusilli or pappardelle
Wash the courgettes thoroughly in cold water. Drain them, trim away both ends (saving the flowers!) and cut the courgettes into  rounds a little less than a cm thick and pat them dry.
Warm the oil and butter in a heavy based frying pan over a medium-low flame. Peel the garlic then squash each clove with back of a knife, add to the frying pan and sauté gently until the garlic is fragrant and just – but only just – starting to colour. Add the courgettes and a pinch of salt to the pan, moving and turning them so each piece is coated with oil and butter.
After a few minutes, raise the heat a little and add the wine. Allow it to sizzle and evaporate a little before adding the water. Now reduce the heat again and allow the courgettes to bubble and cook gently – half frying/ half braising, giving the courgettes a stir and nudge every now and then and adding a little more water if the pan looks dry – for about 15 minutes or until the courgettes are very soft tender and collapsing
Bring a large pan of well salted water to a fast boil and add the pasta.
Tip the courgettes into a bowl – remove the garlic if you like – and then using a fork, potato masher or immersion blender (cautiously) mash the courgettes into a rough sauce.
Dice the pancetta.I n the frying pan you cooked the courgettes in, warm the oil and then fry the pancetta until it is crisp. Add the courgette sauce to the pancetta, stir, check seasoning.
When the pasta is al dente, drain – reserving a little of the cooking water – and tip into the pan with sauce. Toss the pasta and sauce together adding a little of the reserved cooking water if you think the sauce needs loosening.
Serve immediately with plenty of freshly grated parmesan.
 .

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Filed under courgettes, food, pasta and rice, recipes, spring recipes, vegetables

Keys, peas, rice and cheese.

If everything had gone according to plan I wouldn’t be here. I’d be unpacking boxes in my freshly painted new flat, borrowing cups of milk from my new neighbours and generally looking practical but fetching in a pair of paint speckled dungarees and a nifty red and white polka dot headscarf. I’d be warming the soup I’d prudently prepared earlier, tearing the bread and chiseling lumps of cheese from my rustic hunk of parmesan for one of the informal, impromptu but delicious first-days-in-the-flat-picnic-lunches.

Or maybe I’d be slightly hysterical, sobbing red-faced and exhausted into a cardboard box, overwhelmed by the lack of furniture or any kind of storage. Or simply spread eagle on my new living room floor in a grubby track suit contemplating the strange crack across the ceiling that bears an uncanny resemblence to the Eiffel Tower, the bizarre marks on the wall and the prospect of a week of bleach, scrubbing and insubstantial snacks. I am however doing none of the above, as things have not gone according to plan. I do have the keys to my new flat though, a provisional move-in day next week (this will change of course) and a very nice recipe for Risotto di piselli.

I didn’t start out making risotto. As I flicked the first peas from their pods, Risi e bisi, rice and peas – a minestra densa – a thick dense soup made in the style of a risotto was the plan. It was perfect I thought, as I over enthusiastically flicked the contents of a pod of peas scuttling across the kitchen, with one large green orb taking refuge in Vincenzo’s walking boot: a good lunch and at the same time an opportunity to test the Risi e bisi recipe for Mona. What’s more it would also be a good moment to tell you about the soup book project I am working on at the American Academy with the chef Mona Talbott and share one of her recipes – a new take on Risi e bisi – with you. Things didn’t go according to plan.

It all began well. I podded the peas and set them aside. Then I pulled away the stringy top and tail from the usually discarded pea pods, put them in a stock pot with some aromatics, covered the whole lot with cold water and brought the pan to a lively boil for 10 minutes in order to make a pea pod broth. The pea pod broth I have learned to make with Mona, the pea pod broth that makes all the difference to the Venetian classic Risi e bisi. While the green tinted panful bubbled away enthusiastically, seeming at once both soothing healthful elixir and mysterious witches brew, I sat at the table with my Campari Soda – my aperitivo of choice at present  – a bowl of big, fat green olives and flicked open the lap top to consult Mona’s recipe.

I’m not sure what was more disturbing, the noise – a grinding computer moan – the deranged flicker across the screen or the odd lava lamp effect in the left hand corner. I felt simultaneous waves of panic, disbelief and self-pity as yet another crisis threatened to gate-crash my week. A diatribe of heavy English cursing and Italian blasphemies bubbled up my throat and into my mouth, my eye twitched involuntarily. I felt the signs of imminent meltdown. But then, thanks in large part to my pink drink and Hugh Masekela’s ‘Boys are doing it’ curling through the speakers, I came to my senses and did the only sensible thing: I had a large slug of Campari Soda and closed the laptop.

I could have gone into next room and fired up Vincenzo’s monster mac, but considering that too is on its last legs and suspiciously slow, and bearing in mind the way things are going this week, it seemed like tempting fate. As I strained the fragrant, green tinted pea pod broth I wondered if I could remember all of Mona’s recipe. I thought very hard ‘Some olive oil, 30 ml, no 60 ml, no 30 ml and some butter! No that was the spring minestone! 1.5 litres, wait, no 2, no 1.5 litres of pea pod…..‘ before coming to my senses again and remembering the whole point of recipe testing is exactly that, testing, following the precise quantities. Recipe testing is, after all, more etching than sketching and certainly not the time for impressionist guess-work. The pea pod broth stared at me, my stomach grumbled rudely, my eye twitched. I needed some kitchen reassurance, a well-practiced recipe, I’d use the pea pod broth to make a risotto. After I’d refreshed my Campari that is.

I make a risotto of one sort or another most weeks. In winter it’s usually porcini mushroom risotto so the flavoursome liquid the mushrooms produce when soaking provides the broth, or I make a plain risotto, in which case chicken broth is order of the day. In autumn I make far too many pumpkin risottos and usually end up using Bouillon granules. If I have some pretty gutsy chicken broth I’ll make a fennel risotto. In summer I muddle together lots of tomato risotto-esque lunches and I use (gasp) water. Spring is the time for asparagus or pea risotto and that means vegetable broth I’ve taken the time to make, or bouillon granules that I haven’t. Until now that is! Now I’ve discovered pea pod broth.

Pea pod broth is a little revelation, by boiling the empty pea pods along with a handful of the peas themselves (you can also add an onion, carrot, stick of celery and some parsley stems if you so wish) you produce a light, fragrant, gently flavoured broth with a simple grassy sweetness. You can pass the pods and liquid through a food mill to make a very intense broth – this is what Mona uses for her Risi e Bisi – but for risotto I prefer simply straining the broth, pressing the vegetables firmly against the fine sieve to extract as much flavour as possible. Once you’ve made your broth and it’s simmering gently in a small pan on the stove you can begin making your risotto.

You know the routine. You gently soften a finely chopped small onion in some butter and olive oil. Then you add the rice – carnaroli, arborio or vialone nero – and nudge that around the pan, letting it absorb all the oil and butter and start to toast. Next you add the wine or vermouth, woosh, the energetic sizzle as the alcohol evaporates away and the wine is sucked up by the thirsty rice like a 5-year-old inhaling a carton of ribena through a straw after winning the sack race on sports day in August.

Now, with your timer ticking to remind you this will take about 16 – 20 minutes, you start one of the very nicest stove rituals, adding the pea pod broth a ladleful at a time, stirring, nudging, moving the rice, allowing the liquid to be absorbed before adding the next ladleful. After about 8 minutes you pause to add the peas, before resuming the steady addition of the broth. After 16 minutes you start tasting, the rice should be tender and creamy but still al dente (to the tooth) at the center, with pleasing firmness. You are trying to find (the often illusive) moment of divine creaminess and bite.  Once the rice is cooked, the liquid absorbed and the risotto has a very soft, wavy texture (remember it will continue absorbing liquid so it should be quite loose at this point) you beat in the grated cheese, mint and more butter, maybe a pinch of salt, which brings everything together into a soft, undulating, creamy tumble. It is this final step, the mantecatura,  the beating in of the cold butter and cheese, which helps give the risotto it’s unique consistency.

Advice, if I may be so bold. Use good risotto rice, I like carnaroli. Try and find small, tender, freshly picked peas with firm, bright pods. I know it’s impossible to know what hides inside every pod (there are always a few floury cannonballs infiltrating the rabble) but sliding open a few pods at the market will give you a general idea. Once you reach 16 minutes start tasting, you are trying to identify the moment the rice is tender but still firm at the center of each grain, this will differ from brand to brand, variety to variety. Be generous with the broth, using some extra if necessary, and turn off the flame when the risotto is still very loose, soft and undulating because it will stiffen quickly as you take it to the table.

I need to listen to my own advice and be a little more generous with the broth! The above lunch was delicious but could have been a little looser, a little more laid back, a little more undulating on the plate, a little more roll than rock. But this is by the by, after two more pans of pea pod broth and two more attempts I am ready to preach. Pea risotto made with pea pod broth is quite simply excellent. The subtle, fragrant broth is the perfect backdrop for the tender, creamy, short grain rice studded with tiny green peas: sweet and savory, as bright and simple as sunshine with their unmistakable simple grassy sweetness, the sharp, sour parmesan and the flick of earthy, moody, fragrant mint.

A cucumber and tomato salad, dressed with olive oil and salt, was a pretty perfect table companion for the risotto,  The cucumber in particular: cool, calm and collected, it’s crisp texture, refreshing cleanness and alkaline tang was a perfect foil for the soft creamy risotto, sweet peas and tangy cheese.

Advice – When things don’t go according to plan, have a nice lunch.

Risotto di Piselli – Pea risotto

Serves 4

  • 1 kg / 2 llb peas in their pods
  • small white onion, peeled and cut in two
  • parsley stalks
  • stick celery
  • small carrot
  • 30 ml / 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 60 g / 2 ½ oz butter
  • 1 small mild yellow onion finely chopped
  • 400g / 14 oz risotto rice
  • 125 ml / 4 fl oz dry white wine or Vermouth
  • 1.5 litres / 6 cups pea pod broth (plus a little extra) or other broth
  • 60 g / 2 ½ oz freshly grated parmesan
  • tbsp finely chopped fresh mint
  • Pod the peas, setting the peas aside and keeping the empty pods. Cut off and discard tough ends from pods; pull off and discard strings.
  • Rinse the pods and then put them into a large stock pot along with the carrot, celery, parsley stems and onion. Cover with 2 litres of cold water, bring the pot to the boil. Continue boiling for 10 minutes Pull the pot from the heat and alow the broth to sit for another 10 minutes. Strain the pea pod broth, pressing the soft pods against the side of the sieve to extract as much flavour as possible and set it aside.
  • When you are ready to make your risotto heat the pea pod broth.
  • Melt half the butter with the oil in a large heavy based saute pan. Saute the onion gently over a medium flame until transparent and lightly gold in colour.
  • Add the rice and stir it thoughrally but gently to absorb the butter and oil. Pour in the wine and boil for 1 minute to allow the alcohol to evaporate, stirring constantly.
  • Turn down the heat to medium heat and begin to add the pea pod broth a ladleful at a time allowing the liquid to be absorbed into the rice before adding more. After 8 minutes add the peas, stir. continue adding the pea pod broth until it has all been used up and absorbed by the rice. This takes about 20 minutes. Turn off the heat. Allow risotto to rest for 1 minute.
  • Add the remainder of the butter, grated parmesan and and mint and beat gently.
  • Serve.

It’s taken me several days to finish this post and since writing the first paragraphs progress has been made and F day and is looking a little like Tuesday. We will see. You may, or may not, be relieved to know the Eiffel tower crack had been investigated and filled and the flat is freshly painted.

It’s all feeling rather long-winded around here so I won’t go into details about the soup making project with Mona today. I will just say, that in the midst of all this change and endings, starting a new chapter and working with a chef like Mona, watching her make soup, writing recipes together and being part of the Rome Sustainable Food Project and it’s new book is just what I need . I think posting about risi e bisi now will seem a little like pea and rice deja vu so I plan (oh dear, we know what can happen to those) to write about a two of her other soups over the next couple of weeks.

I inhaled all your good wishes like the risotto rice soaking up the vermouth, like the 5-year-old inhaling a carton of ribena through a straw after winning the sack race on sports day in August, thank you, I will take them with me on Tuesday, or Wednesday. Now where I did put that Campari?

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Filed under food, pasta and rice, recipes, spring recipes

Pulling mussels

I first ate fave e pecorino – young broad beans still in their pods so you can peel them yourself and chunks of the salty, robust ewes milk cheese Pecorino Romano – at the trattoria Augustarello in Testaccio. It was May 2005 and I’d been in Italy for nearly two months. Following my impulsive, slightly demented, not-very-grand tour of Southern Italy, I’d paused for breath, admitted my travels might be easier with more than twenty words of comedy Italian and enrolled myself at a language school here in Rome. The school had found me a gloomy, fusty, extremely odd apartment near piazza Bologna which although detrimental for both my spirits and my sinuses, was bearable because I knew I was moving to Testaccio.

Actually I knew I wanted to move to Testaccio, having spent the day exploring this unexpectedly alluring and although fashionable, resolutely authentic quarter of Rome with my friend and curious architect Joanna. During her visit, Joanna was as eager for us to visit Testaccio’s abandoned slaughterhouse, its austere yet beautiful futurist post office, the slightly grimy but busy and dynamic iron and glass food market and the courtyards and stairwells of its public housing as she was the fountains, domes and palaces of the eternal City. This is where I want to live I decided – as Joanna urged me to enter yet another (clearly private) courtyard to take pictures of another ingenious stairwell – I just had to find a flat.

I’d go to school each morning, then most lunchtimes, head spinning with verb conjugations and the knowledge I was the bottom of the class again, I’d take the metro from piazza Bologna to Pyramide, walk up via Marmorata, turn left into via Galvani and then right into via mastro Giorgio and the heart of Testaccio. Before any serious flat hunting could be embarked upon lunch was required. It was during these slightly lonely but good days, in search of lunch, that I discovered many of the shops, stalls, bars, osteria, trattoria that I still go to everyday.

The tomato stall at the back of the market for sweet, spicy, thick-skinned pachino tomatoes which I’d wash under the drinking fountain and then eat with bread and mozzarella in the park. Vincenzo and Rita’s stall for strawberries and peas in their pods. Panifico Passi for hot pizza bianca and Foccacia. Volpetti for a piece of cheese and a slice of torta salata, Volpetti Più for a seat, a bowl of pasta e fagioli and a plate of cicoria with olive oil and lemon. The bar Linari for two cornetti and a cappuccino – I’m a great believer in breakfast for lunch every now and then. The bar Giolitti for an ice-cream and a tub of zabaione – I also believe in double pudding for lunch. Il Bucatino for spaghetti con le vongole, Da Felice for Cacio e pepe and Augustarello for my favourite lunches and lessons in Roman kitchen.

I probably leaned more Italian at Augustarello that at school, and what I learned was certainly more useful. It was here, in this simple, archetypal Testaccio trattoria, at one of the 10 or so tables that I also learned and really tasted distinct, deliciously robust, gutsy Roman cooking; carciofi alla Romanabucatini all’amatriciana, gricia, cacio e pepe. It was at Augustarello I encountered the bold, offal based cooking from the slaughterhouse days: animelle (sweetbreads), coda alla vacinara, pajata. It was at Augustarello that a tumble of long spindly fave fresco were brought to the table along with a hunk of Pecorino Romano, a stubby little cheese knife, a glass of Malvasia and I made my acquaintance with the simple, unadulterated joy that is fave e pecorino.

I consider myself quite devoted to antipasti and this is one of my favourites, both for its ritual and its unique taste. The ritual: running your finger down the side of the fave and feeling the velvety lining of the pod, popping out the first fave, easing away it’s tough outer jacket to reveal the tender, brilliant green bean, chiseling away a little hunk of pecorino. The taste of the two together: the tender, bittersweet, soft waxy bean contrasted with the salty, grainy cheese.

Talking of antipasti, all these words are a long rambling antipasti – I’m also a believer in long rambling antipasti – tasty morsels in preparation for il primo, todays recipe, a particularly good one, the one Vincenzo and I ate yesterday, Spaghetti with fresh tomato sauce and mussels.

I’ve had it in mind to make spaghetti with a tomato and mussel sauce for some time now, ever since eating a really excellent plateful at La Torricella late last summer. I’ve daydreamed of that bowl of al-dente spaghetti coated with a soft, sweet, fresh tomato sauce and studded with tender mussels, with a sea-salty kick of shellfish liquor and heat of peperoncino, the grassy flecks of parsley and oregano. It has only taken me 8 months. Actually in Rachel terms 8 months is relatively snappy.  My procrastination however, has not been such a bad thing, I don’t think this sauce would be as deliciously soft and sweet made with the tinned tomatoes that sustain us through the winter. Now’s the time, late April, early May as the first truly deep-red tomatoes with their tangle of vines appear at the market. ‘Le cozze sono buone in Aprile, il migliore’ – ‘the mussels are good in April, the best‘ promises my fishmonger smoothing down his unruly handlebar moustache. He always makes such promises. On this occasion he’s right though, inside each curved inky blue-black shell we find a curious orange creature, plump, juicy and tender.

If like me, you have mussel anxiety – I speak of shell-fish not triceps although I have anxiety about them too, although not enough to actually do anything about their decline – I have some advice. It’s good advice, from my friend Saverio: occasional fisherman, fish market pro and excellent cook.  Advice #1  – Having established a good relationship with your reputable fish monger, establish the best time of year and day of the week to buy mussels. Go early in the morning to buy them and eat them that same day. #2 – Throw away any that have a broken shell, or remain closed even after being tapped sharply with the handle of a knife. #3 – Be fearless when cleaning, soak them in plenty of cold water for an hour, then go on, pull away that funny beard, scrub away any sand or barnacles. #4 – Cook the mussels in a single layer in large, flat-bottomed pan with a tight-fitting lid. #5 – Enlist the help of an assistant to pull the mussels from the shells.

While your assistant is plucking mussels from shells and you can get on with the business of making a very simple, fresh tomato sauce. You skin the tomatoes by plunging them first into boiling water for a minute, then cold water for a few seconds, before draining them. The skins should then peel away easily. You rough chop the tomatoes. Then you sizzle some chopped garlic, chili and oregano in a little olive oil, add a glug of wine, let this bubble away before adding the tomatoes and letting things reduce and thicken for 15 minutes or so. Then you add the mussels and their intense salty liquor to the sauce.

Now all’s that left is to cook some pasta, spaghetti or linguine, in a big pan of well-salted, fast boiling water until it’s al-dente, then mix the drained pasta with the sauce and a handful of roughly chopped parsley. You serve, drizzling a little more of your best extra virgin olive oil over each bowl, you grab a fork and a corner of bread and eat.

I’ve been out-of-sorts on the kitchen lately, the imminent move and separation, so making something really good and tasty – because this is really good and extremely tasty – was especially nice. A reassuring nod from my kitchen, an affirmation from  my lunch, a humm of approval from Vincenzo.  There are countless recipes for spaghetti with tomato and mussel sauce, but this one, from The River Cafe Cookbook is, like most things from the River Cafe kitchen and the hands of Rose Grey and Ruth Rogers, truly excellent.

As we ate I muttered earnest things like ‘Mussels are lovely and not expensive‘ or ‘I don’t know why I ever worried about cleaning or cooking mussels‘ and Vincenzo nodded. We decided Spaghetti with fresh tomato and mussel sauce tastes of springtime, of warmth, of the mediterranean and the salty lick of the sea, that its a delicious whole much greater than the sum of its parts. We decided to make it again next week, our last week together in this flat.

Spaghetti with fresh tomato sauce and mussels

Adapted from the River Cafe Cookbook Two by Rose Grey and Ruth Rogers

serves 4

  • 4 tbsp olive oil
  • 1.5 – 2 kg mussels in shell, cleaned (discard any that remain open)
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
  • 1 small red chilli, crumbled
  • 1 tbsp chopped oregano
  • 150 ml dry white wine
  • 1 kg ripe tomatoes
  • sea salt and black pepper
  • 2 tbsp chopped parsley
  • 400g dried spaghetti

Heat half the olive oil in a large, wide saucepan with a tight-fitting lid. Add the mussels in one layer – this will probably mean 2 or 3 batches – cover and cook briefly over a high heat until they all open. Discard any mussels that remain closed. Drain, keeping the liquid. When the mussels are cool, remove from the shells and chop. In a small pan reduce the mussel liquid by half, strain through a fine sieve and add to the mussels.

In another pan, heat the rest of the olive oil and add the garlic, chilli and oregano. Cook for a couple of minutes, until the garlic begins to turn gently golden then add the wine and reduce for a minute. Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking, for 15 minutes, until reduced. Add the mussels, juice, salt – be cautious, the mussel juice will be salty – pepper and parsley. Keep sauce warm.

Cook the spaghetti in plenty of well-salted fast boiling water until al-dente. Drain. Add mussel sauce and stir.

Divide between 4 warm serving plates drizzling a little more of your best extra virgin olive oil over the top. Eat.

If all goes well, I will get the keys to my new flat on the 2nd of May. I will then pull other mussels as I heave my large, confusing muddle of belongs across Testaccio and up two flights of stairs. It’s a nice flat, on via Marmorata with windows opening onto via Antonio Cecchi. It’s filled with light. Me, I’m filled with excitement and terror, great sadness and hope at the thought of moving. As always, thank you very much for the companionship here.

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Filed under pasta and rice, rachel eats Rome, sauces, Shell fish, spring recipes, tomatoes

Rather like peas.

Rather like fresh pea and asparagus season, my stay back here at via Mastro Giorgio 81 will be brief. In both cases: green spring vegetables and Rachel, brevity is best. Best for the vegetables because in a world where production and marketing of food has gone mad, at a time when we’re bamboozled by infinite year-round choice, seasonal food is sanity, a joy to be anticipated, relished and then missed. Until next year that is. Seasonal peas in their pods and asparagus are so nice because they’re just that, seasonal. Brevity is best for me because however important it was to come back; to sort through things, talk, divide and try to forge a new kind of relationship with Vincenzo, however reassuring it feels to be back here in a house I love, I must, we both must, move on.

I don’t intend to move on very far though, in a physical sense that is. I’ve decided to look for a new place here in Testaccio, the quarter of Rome I know and love, the wedge-of parmesan-shaped rione XX tucked between the Tevere river, Aventine hill and the southern most section of the Aurelian wall, the quarter I wandered into over 6 years ago with about 20 words of Italian, one telephone number and no fixed plans. Actually Vincenzo and I have decided together that I’ll stay here in Testaccio, agreeing that it’s big enough for the both of us. We’ve discussed the possibility of a John Wayne sized showdown at some point, possibly in the market, weapons: a selection of underripe and overripe fruit and veg, but have concluded this risk is worthwhile. Vincenzo is stupendous.

So let’s get down to business. I have, hardly surprisingly, been extremely happy and over excited – irritatingly so was one observation –  to be back living next to Testaccio market. After a very emotional reunion with my fruttivendoli Vincenzo and Rita, catching-up of the vegetable kind was embarked upon. I settled back into the kitchen with the always reliable courgette/zucchini carbonara and large pan of spring minestrone, before turning my attention to the new arrivals; peas and the first, plump asparagus.

The first kilo of peas was eaten just so on the way back from the market and while cooking the carbonara – straight from the paper bag, peas flicked from pods into my big mouth. Later the same day I went to supper with my friends Cinzia and Ettore and their kids, my favourite students, Antonio and Lucia. Cinzia served a big plate of fresh peas alongside some olives and cheese as an easy communal starter. It was a happy crashing of hands and podding of peas as Cinzia prepared the lamb. I’ll be borrowing this idea. The first bunch of asparagus was steamed until tender and eaten with olive oil, Roscioli bread and pecorino.

The second kilo of peas and second bunch of fat asparagus were destined for pasta, a spring affair, my interpretation of a lunch made for me early last week: farfalle con piselli e asparagi.

It’s all extremely simple. You pod your peas and steam the asparagus until tender but still firm, You could boil the asparagus I suppose, but I always wonder what you lose into the rolling water. You gently saute the podded peas and steamed, sliced asparagus in olive oil before adding a little white wine or water, a good pinch of salt and letting the peas and asparagus bubble away half covered, until tender and just starting to collapse.

Super-al-dente vegetable fans should look away now, for this particular recipe – or idea really – the peas and asparagus are cooked until very soft and just starting to fall apart – you give them a hand by pressing them gently against the side of the pan with a wooden spoon. Gasp and wince from Super-al-dente vegetable fans. Let me reassure you, you’re not trying to murder the vegetables, nor over-cook them into a murky brown mush (I am a traumatized victim of English school dining rooms in the 70’s remember, I know how bad it can be) you’re just breaking things up a bit, creating a slight creaminess and softness which will coat the pasta and bring things together.

You can add little more olive oil to the peas and asparagus along with a handful of finely chopped parsley or some ripped basil if you like. You should taste and check for salt. You will have a deliciously sweet, tender, oily, green muddle of peas and asparagus . I would happily eat a plate of this just so with a hunk of bread and lump of pecorino Romano.

You cook some Farfalle pasta – the butterfly / bow ties work beautifully here – and add it to the peas and asparagus along with a spoonful of the cloudy pasta cooking water to loosen things up. You could also add a big blob of ricotta at this point – I have plans to do this tomorrow so will update here accordingly. Serve topped with a little heap of freshly grated parmesan or pecorino and a grind of black pepper.

It’s nice to be back at my table with my favourite napkin, the one I borrowed from a restaurant in Trastevere (after a terrible meal I hasten to add! Not that a terrible meal justifies my criminal impulses.) This is my idea of a pretty perfect early spring lunch, well one of them at least, I have many. It’s delicate, fresh, simple. The gentle braising brings out the sweetness and softens the edges of three ingredients that although beautiful together might make for a rather fragmented dish if cooked too quickly, cooking them in this way ensures they come together into a satisfying, nourishing, rounded whole, A very good way to enjoy produce (and a kitchen) that won’t be around for long.

I am looking forward to experimenting around this idea; wild garlic, spring onions, a little finely chopped prosciutto, that big blob of ricotta…

Farfalle con asparagi e piselli

serves 4

  • 1kg fresh peas in pods (which will yield about 300g when podded)
  • bunch of asparagus
  • 60ml/2 floz olive oil
  • 1ooml dry white wine
  • salt
  • some finely chopped parsely or a few ripped basil leaves
  • another 30ml olive oil
  • 450g farfalle pasta
  • freshly grated parmesan/ pecorino

Pod your peas. Cut away the tough woody end of the asparagus – how much you trim will depend on the thickness and variety of asparagus.

Steam / boil asparagus over/ in large pot of boiling salted water until just tender, 2 to 6 minutes, depending on thickness of asparagus. Using a slotted spoon remove the asparagus from the pan and cut into 2″ pieces.

Bring a large pan of well salted water to a fast boil in preparation for the pasta.

Warm the olive oil in a frying pan over a medium heat. Add the peas and a pinch of salt, stir and cook for a minute or two. Add the asparagus pieces, stir, add the wine and allow the vegetables to bubble away. half covered, for 12 minutes. Stir every now and then and gently press the veg against the sides of the pan with a wooden spoon so they break up gently. Pull the vegetables from the heat and add another glug of olive oil, the finely chopped parsley or basil and stir. Taste for salt and add more if necessary.

Put the pasta in the water and cook until al dente. Drain the pasta – reserving a little of the cooking water. Mix the pasta with the peas and asparagus, adding a little of the cooking water to loosen everything. Serve with plenty of freshly grated parmesan or pecorino and a good grind of black pepper.
I have been really touched and sustained by your kind comments and messages over the last couple of months. I wish I could steal green and white checked napkins for each and every one of you to say thank you. But I won’t, as I fear that might result in a large fine, expulsion from Italy or prison.
I joke because otherwise I’d go mad. I really just want to say thank you.

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Filed under food, pasta and rice, peas, Rachel's Diary, recipes, spring recipes, vegetables