Category Archives: summer food

Seeing red

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It was all so green when I left. A week away –  a bonny wedding weekend on an island in the Scottish Hebrides called Tanera Mòr and then a few days slightly too far outside London with my family – and Testaccio market is splattered, like a Cy Twombly canvas, with red. There is still green of course, a market patchwork of asparagus, peas, spinach, slim beans, forest green chard and soft heads of spring lettuce. But it’s the startling splatters: tomatoes, strawberries, crimson cherries and bunches of blushing radishes that are catching my eye.

I’ve never found peeling tomatoes a faff. Quite the opposite in fact, I find the spa-esque process – a hot plunge, a nick with a sharp knife, a cold plunge before peeling –  thoroughly pleasing. Maybe I should get out more? My carelessness with a handful of tomato skins once blocked the sink in the smart kitchen Romla and I were doing some rogue catering in. Fortunately the husband of the house, a man so handsome I turned the same colour as the tomatoes, happened to be in the kitchen while our twenty-three year old selves were peering anxiously into the blocked Belfast. He strode over (I think he might even have been wearing buff riding breeches) plunged his aristocratic hand down the plughole, scooped out the offending red skins and complimented us on the suggestive smell of dinner.

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These are Sicilian pomodori Piccadilly. They are fleshy, flavoursome things the size of small plums that smell of the tangled vine they grew on. Tomatoes like this make me forget my jaded self who has shaken off much of her Roman romanticism, and remember the Rachel who first arrived in Italy nine springs ago. The woman who stood staring in gastronomic awe at the mounds of red: tiny orbs, beefy cow hearts, fat fluted saucers, pendulous plums and who ate them chopped, sliced or simply squashed idly onto bread with a careless quality of olive oil and too much salt day after day after day just because she could.

Having sung the praises of Italian pomodori when I know full well many of you might not be able to find such full hipped and red lipped tomatoes, I should hasten to add today’s recipe is a forgiving one. Extremely forgiving, as it involves the saving grace of many-a-mediocre tomato: a flesh shriveling, flavour intensifying roast.

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Having peeled your tomatoes, sliced them in two and set them cut-side-up in a well-oiled baking dish, you tuck a thin sliver of garlic into the soft pulp and place a quarter of anchovy filet on top of each half. You then scatter some soft, craggy breadcrumbs, a little finely chopped fresh rosemary, salt and black pepper over the upturned faces before dousing the whole tray, fearlesslessly and drunkenly with extra virgin olive oil. I find a glass of wine is helpful when a reckless olive oil hand is called for.

You bake your well-seasoned tomatoes at 180° for about 20 minutes or until they are extremely soft, collapsing, curling sweetly at the edges and starting to suggest sauce. Until the anchovies have dissolved into the tender tomato flesh and the olive oil inebriated breadcrumbs are crisp and golden.

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The combination of roasted tomato: sweet and savory with the intense, salty fishiness of the anchovy, a warm notes of tomato smothered garlic, the smoky, floral rosemary and crisp olive oil soaked breadcrumbs is a mighty good one. A mighty good one that sings. I agree with the brilliant Niki SegnitIf you have ever wondered what Unami is, a mouthful of tomato and anchovy should settle the matter.’ I’d go one step further and say a mouthful of roasted tomato with anchovies (the fat, plump Sicilian ones preserved under coarse salt that you need to soak and then de-bone) rosemary and olive oil breadcrumbs and the Unami matter is settled and some.

You could eat your tumbling mess of anchovy, rosemary and breadcrumbed tomatoes with a grilled lamb chop, pork chop or slice of roast chicken. Alternatively – and I appreciate the suggestion of breadcrumbs on bread might sound odd –  they are excellent smeared on toast. Or you could do as I did today.

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That is mash your baking tray of warm tomatoes clumsily into a rough sauce with the back of a wooden spoon and then stir this sauce into some al dente linguine or spaghetti. Don’t worry about serving bowls or dishes, mix the pasta with the sauce directly in the baking tray, making sure you diligently scrape and stir every sticky, oily morsel and crumb. Someone will also have to take a crust of bread to the tin once all the pasta is served-up.

This is how I (we) like to eat: pasta with a sauce that both strokes and punches. A green salad of lettuce, lovage and wild rocket and then a dozen crimson cherries made a nice finish to a Wednesday lunch.  Now about that flat hunting.

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Linguine with oven roasted tomatoes, anchovies, rosemary and breadcrumbs

Serves 4

  • 1 kg ripe but firm and flavoursome tomatoes (plum-shaped Piccadilly work particularly well)
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 plump cloves of garlic
  • 6 large or 8 small anchovy filets (preserved under oil or better still under salt)
  • 60 g soft, craggy breadcrumbs
  • a little finely chopped rosemary
  • salt and black pepper
  • 450 g linguine

Set the oven to 180°

Peel the tomatoes by plunging them first into boiling water for 60 seconds and then very cold water. The skins should slip and pull away easily.

Half the tomatoes and sit them – cut side up –  in an oiled baking tin. Peel and slice the garlic very thinly. Tuck a sliver of garlic into the fleshy pulp of each half. Using scissors, snip the anchovy fillets into quarters and sit a quarter on each cut tomato. Scatter the breadcrumbs and chopped rosemary over the tomatoes. Sprinkle and grind a little salt and black pepper then douse everything very generously with olive oil.

Bake the tomatoes for 20 minutes or so or until the tomatoes are very soft and starting to collapse and the breadcrumbs are golden and crisp. You need to keep a beady eye on them.

Cook the linguine in a large pan of well-salted fast boiling water. Using a wooden spoon, gently mash the tomatoes into a very crude, rough sauce, add the drained pasta, stir and serve immediately.

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Filed under food, pasta and rice, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, summer food, tomato sauce, tomatoes

Just right.

Things have shifted. I’m not talking about the big things, even though they too seem to be shuffling, extremely slowly into a different, more comfortable sort of order. I’m talking about the little things, the everyday things: the daily routine with my little boy, the state of my flat, my waxing and plucking (it was out of control) my writing here, my reading, my teaching and life in my small, oddly shaped Roman kitchen.

Unexpectedly, after a period of swatting days and meals away like flies and after a summer of feeling cross and impatient with my kitchen, my food and myself, I seem to have found a new rhythm. A nice, uncharacteristically steady (and slightly jaunty) rhythm.  I’m also managing better: the shopping, the fridge, the planning of meals, the process of cooking itself. I’ve stopped worrying about making something clever and out of character to write about here and focused instead on what suits me (and Luca) now, in September, in Rome. I’ve returned to habits that had slipped away, making do, making stock, making double, making triple (tomato sauce), of soaking beans, big bags of them, which means the base and a head start of two, three, maybe even four meals. I’ve been – for once – using my loaf.

So with another wedge of three-day-old-bread on the counter, ricotta salata in the fridge, tomato season sprinting to the finish line and with me bobbing along to this new, unexpected rhythm, there was no debate. No debate as to which recipe to make from Luisa’s book, the first book I have properly buried my head in and inhaled since Luca was born a year ago. It would be Tomato Bread Soup.

But before I talk about Luisa’s Tomato bread soup and the moment ‘When the bread cubes hit the silky tomatoes, they go all custardy and soft’  I’d like to talk a little about her book, a memoir with recipes, My Berlin Kitchen.

Having followed her blog The Wednesday Chef for five years, I already knew Luisa was a gifted writer and storyteller, that she was a skilled and engaging recipe writer – she was of course a cookbook editor. I also knew she was charming, funny and generous – she was one of the first to give my blog a deep nod of approval. I had high hopes and hefty expectations. I was even a little nervous as I ripped open the grey bag from Viking press, smoothed the slightly matt cover, admired the boots and thought ‘I’ve got a bag like that‘ and opened the first inky smelling page.

It’s delicious. It’s a beautiful and intelligently written account of a young woman’s life so far. A life that weaves and navigates its way between three cultures: German, American and Italian. A life in which this necessary but often baffling weaving is understood and managed through food, through nourishing others and being nourished. It’s evocative writing that seizes all your senses: taste, smell, touch, sound and sight, but writing that manages to remain as sharp as a redcurrant, pertinent and never cloying. I particularly liked reading about Luisa’s early childhood in West Berlin in the late 1970’s. Fascinating stuff, especially when Luisa teetered on the edge of something much darker. I’d like to learn more. I loved reading about Luisa’s Italian family and her food education, an enlightenment of sorts, a process that resonated strongly with me and my own experiences here in Italy. I’m itching to visit Berlin now, next spring I think. I’ll hire a bike and pedal my way around the city before finding myself some pickled herrings, potato salad and plum-cake.

Then there are the recipes, of which there are more than 44, fitting neatly and beautifully into the narrative. Which of course is the point, a memoir with food! Food and recipes that help you understand and taste a life. Terrific stuff. And so to the recipe I had no difficulty in choosing, an Italian one on page 82, one of the simplest, one of Luisa’s favorites and one of mine too: Tomato and Bread Soup or Pappa al pomodoro.

Pappa means , quite literally, mush and pomodoro, as you know, tomato. Mush of tomatoes. Stay with me. Pappa al pomodoro is classic Italian comfort food, born out of necessity, thrift and good taste. Excellent tomatoes are cooked with a fearless quantity of extra virgin olive oil,  plump garlic and a hefty pinch of salt until they are soft and pulpy. Cubed stale bread from a coarse country loaf is then added to the pan and everything cooked for another 10 minutes. This is moment Luisa captures so well, the moment when ‘When the bread cubes hit the silky tomatoes, they go all custardy and soft.’  The pan is then left to cool – as we know good things come to those who wait – and the flavors mellow. The Pappa al pomodoro is then served with grated ricotta salata and torn basil. Delicious and exquisite, a little like Luisa and her book which was released this week. Thank you for sending me a copy Vikings and tanti auguri to you Luisa.

Now I would happily eat pappa al pomodoro twice a week, every week, especially if every now and then it was topped with a lacy edged fried egg or quivering poached one. I can’t of course, eat it every week, what with it being such a strictly seasonal panful. Of course it’s this seasonality that makes Pappa al pomodoro even more of a pleasure, a treat.  Make it now while tomaotes are still in fine form.

Luca has never eaten so much lunch in his year-long life. Viva la pappa (thanks Jo.)

Tomato and bread soup Pappa al pomodoro

From My Berlin Kitchen by Luisa Weiss

Serves 2 hungry people. It could serve 4 at a push but who wants to push!

  • 3 llbs / 1.5 kg fresh, ripe plum tomatoes
  • 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 small onion minced
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 cups cubed, crustless sourdough or peasant bread
  • 1/2 cup grated ricotta salata
  • 1 tbsp minced fresh basil leaves

Core and quarter the plum tomatoes. Place the tomatoes and their juices in a food processor and pulse a few times to chop them coarsely, you don’t want tomato puree.

Heat the oil in a 4-quart / 4 litre saucepan. Add the onion and garlic and sauté until soft but not browned, Add the tomatoes and their juices. season with salt and pepper, bring to a slow simmer, and cook for 45 minutes, covered, stirring from time to time.

When the soup has simmered for 45 minute, add the cubed bread and simmer for another 10 minutes, Check seasoning and discard the garlic.

Serve slightly cooled or at room temperature, with grated ricotta salata and minced basil strewn over each serving.

My notes.

I didn’t measure my oil but it was a mighty glug, I’d say about 5 tbsp. My tomatoes, a variety called Piccadilly had particularly thick skins so I peeled them. I don’t have a food processor so I chopped the tomatoes roughly by hand which seemed to work pretty well. I didn’t add onion. I left the garlic in the soup until I served it. My soup was fanatically thick by the end of cooking so I added a little water to loosen everything. I forgot the basil, there was something missing.

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Filed under Book review, books, bread, food, soup, summer food, The Wednesday Chef, tomatoes, vegetables

The sauce is greener

Windowsill in Rome at about 4pm on Saturday 18th August – a dog day if ever there was one. From left to right, parsley, basil and (despite dastardly heat) a very perky mint plant.

I’ve recently rediscovered green sauce. I’ve reembraced this gloriously good, gorgeous green amalgam of herbs, capers, anchovies, garlic and extra virgin olive oil. This piquant, salty, fresh, grassy, sour, oily, punchy, slap of a sauce  I’ve been spooning it over (almost) everything. I’ve been eating it straight from the jar. I’m considering tucking a small tub of it in my handbag, a culinary first aid kit so to speak, in case I encounter any comestible blandness that needs remedying. I’ve decided upon my epitaph: She – after experimentation and sound advice – made a good green sauce.

I used to call my green sauce by its Italian name, Salsa verde, which literally translated means sauce green. ‘This is sauce green madam, with tongue of veal’ declared the waiter at the Trattoria near Ferrara as he presented me with my lingua con salsa verde a few years backAnd very good lingua it was too (tongue is a dish deserving of our culinary courage, one that – quite literally – sticks its tongue out at you and your squeamishness and whispers I dare you!) But it was the Salsa verde that really got me going, the chaotic tumble of parsley, capers, onion, anchovies, breadcrumbs, garlic and olive oil.

Following that meal in Ferrara  I started making Salsa Verde at home. At first I was faithful, reverential even, to the parsley-breadcrumb-onion-garlic-caper-anchovy-olive oil salsa I’d enjoyed so much. Then, feeling a little frisky about my salsa skills and with sound advice from Marcella Hazan, Giorgio Locatelli and Fergus Henderson, I began to experiment. I discovered that I’m partial to a little mint and basil alongside my parsley, that onion isn’t (always) necessary, nor for that matter are breadcrumbs, that a heavy hand with the anchovies is no bad thing.

I shared my Salsa Verde observations with a man from Milan over an aperitivo in an odd bar near Piazza Navona. I wish I hadn’t! He shook his head violently as I spoke of herbs other than parsley. He snorted when I suggested omitting the breadcrumbs and winced at the mention of garlic. ‘Non è Salsa Verde‘ he replied disapprovingly before saying something rude and clichéd about the English and their food. I wasn’t in the mood for gastronomic argy bargy with a possibly knowledgable but properly pompous old fart . ‘How right he was‘ I conceded ‘It wasn’t!  It was green sauce.’

I’m never very precise when I make green sauce, a bunch of this, a handful of that, a bit more of that. But then last Saturday – the dog day – in an uncharacteristic fit of pedantry and a sleeping child I counted the leaves.. Well the basil and mint leaves at least! So I can confirm that to my big bunch of parsley I add 25 leaves of both basil and mint. And how big is big? Well once I’d pulled the parsley leaves from the stalks I had a bulging fistful of leaves! Is that helpful? Not really!

You can of course make you green sauce in a food processor! However, I’d like – if you don’t mind – to give you three good reasons to make your green sauce with a sharp knife. Firstly, because only by chopping will you achieve the chaotic, tumbling more-salad-than-sauce textual delight. A food processor – bless – can’t help but obliterate all the ingredients into a bit of a pulpy slurry. Secondly, for the stupendous heady aroma that pervades your kitchen when your knife hits the parsley, mint and basil. If I ever faint in your presence, please waft a board of chopped herbs under my nose. Thirdly, when chopped rather than blitzed, your green sauce will be greener.

Having chopped your herbs, do the same with your capers and anchovies. The capers can be very roughly chopped but you need to reduce the anchovies to a creamy consistency, almost a paste really. Almost. So some serious chopping and squashing with the edge of the knife is in order. Did I mention how much I like anchovies? Yes! Good. The garlic too needs reducing to a paste! I use a pestle and mortar. Meeting a nice chunk of caper in your sauce is one thing, a chunk of garlic is quite another!

Having chopped all the components, scrape them into a bowl, add the vinegar or lemon juice mix everything together thoroughly and energetically with a fork. Then add the olive oil in a thin stream – another pair of hands is useful here – beating the mixture sharply so as to amalgamate the oil with the other ingredients. You are looking for a loose still spoonable  – but not runny or oily – consistency, a thick, gloopy, snooker-baize colored pond. Taste, season with black pepper and add a little more lemon juice or vinegar if you feel it needs it (the anchovies should negate any necessity for salt.)

Green sauce

Makes a jarful.

  • a big bunch of flat leaved parsley (leaves only)
  • 25 basil leaves
  • 25 mint leaves
  • 1 or 2 cloves of garlic
  • a small tin of anchovy fillets (8 fillets)
  • 2 tablespoons capers (in brine)
  • 1 tbsp lemon juice or vinegar
  • 200 ml extra virgin olive oil (you may not need it all)
  • black pepper

Chop your herbs finely with a knife or mezzaluna.

Peel the garlic and then crush it in a pestle and mortar or with the back of a large knife before chopping it very finely.

Drain the capers and then chop them roughly. Chop the anchovy fillets.

In a bowl, mix together the herbs, garlic, capers, anchovy, lemon juice/vinegar and enough olive oil to reach a loose, still spoonable –  but not runny or oily – consistency.

Taste, season with black pepper and add more vinegar or lemon if you think it needs it ( the anchovies should negate any necessity for salt.)

How to eat it

Straight from the jar. Otherwise with just about everything! Green sauce is outrageously social (some would say undiscriminating but they’re just jealous) and its companions know no bounds. It goes brilliantly with meat cooked in almost every manner! I adore it with poached chicken, pork chops and cold roast beef. The same for fish! Cod with lentils and green sauce please! It is terrific with potatoes, sliced tomatoes, steamed and raw vegetables, on sandwiches and with eggs (next to omelets, under poached) especially hard-boiled ones.

It was a good lunch. Hope summer is treating you well.

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Filed under food, olive oil, parsley, rachel eats Italy, sauces, summer food

A good combination.

 

It seemed pretty exotic that first tin of Amaretti biscuitsGranted, not as darkly exotic as the turkish delight studded with pistachios or the bag of curious smelling, ochre-coloured powder in the top drawer of the dresser. But back then, 1982 I suppose, in the days when you couldn’t buy everything everywhere, in our very English kitchen, a large red tin of Italian Amaretti seemed exotic. Thrilling too! Not only because if its size and nature: an extremely large tin of sugary biscuits to be prised open after ‘special‘ dinners during which adults would undoubtedly consume far too much alcohol to give a fig about exercising any kind of portion control, but because of the wrappers.

You see, we soon agreed that the best thing about Amaretti biscuits were the wrappers. Not that the Amaretti themselves –  delicate, crisp domes that shattered and then melted in your mouth – weren’t good! They were. But it was the thin paper wrapping twisted around each pair, that made us, the 1o-year-old, 8-year-old and 5-year-old Roddy children especially giddy. For this paper meant matches and playing with fire. Playing with fire at the table, under the unwatchful eye of inebriated adults. For this paper, if rolled up neatly but not too tight, placed on a plate and then set alight at the top, would burn and then the delicate paper skeleton would waft towards the ceiling before the charred fragments fluttered back down on our upturned faces.

Riding on a wave of nostalgia, I considered buying the largest tin of Lazzaroni Amaretti di Saronno from Castroni, investing in an equally large box of matches and passing the rest of the afternoon flirting with type 2 diabetes and a domestic fire. The small child clamped to my chest and the contents of my purse jolted me back to my senses and I compromised with the rather more modest box containing more than enough Amaretti to keep my post lunch espresso company for the week and my peach and Amaretti plans.

Amaretti, are small, domed Italian macaroons made from sweet and bitter almonds or apricot kernels mixed with fine sugar and egg whites. The name Amaretti means ‘Little bitter ones‘ as the bitter almonds or apricot kernels lend these exquisite little biscuits a flick of bitterness and an intensely almondy flavor which enhances and tempers the sweet almonds and sugar. Italians are immensely fond of their Amaretti, dipping them into their espresso, their sweet wine or liquore and crumbling them into both sweet and savory dishes.

Almost every region of Italy has their own particular kind of Amaretti which – depending on the proportions of the ingredients and the baking time – has its own characteristics. It’s quite extraordinary to see how varying the ratio of sweet and bitter almonds, the sugar and the eggs can produce such distinctly different Amaretti. Some are pale, soft and fudgy. Others are darker, speckled really and properly chewy. I bought a packet of Amaretti in Sardegna which were light as-a-feather and reminiscent of meringues. They can be dry and crumbly or – like the most famous Amaretti from Saronno in northern Italy – crisp, brittle domes the colour of toffee that shatter and then melt in your mouth.

And it’s these brittle domes – and of course their wrappers – I wanted. The sweet but deliciously bitter Amaretti di Saronno, made – as they have been since 1718 – from fine sugar, beaten egg whites and ground apricot kernels. The Amaretti which – unsurprisingly given the apricot kernels – have a lovely affinity and pleasing symmetry with another stone fruit, one that is pretty luscious right now: the peach.

You could of course eat your Amaretti or six with a perfectly ripe peach just so. Better still, you could dip your Amaretti and slices of peach in a glass of desert wine, ideally sitting at a long table in the dappled shade of a chestnut tree in Piemonte, alternatively at a long red table in a very hot and claustrophobic flat in central Rome. But best of all, you could do as the Piedmontese do and crush some of your Amaretti and use them to make Pesche Ripiene (stuffed peaches.)

And so, having washed and dried your peaches, you cut them in half, wriggle the stones out and scoop away any bits of stone or hard flesh from the hollows with a teaspoon before setting the halves, cut side up, in well buttered dish. Well buttered, well buttered, I’d like to be well buttered. Then in a small bowl, you mash together the butter – you have remembered to leave out in the kitchen so it’s soft – sugar, 6 crushed Amaretti, an egg yolk and a hefty pinch of lemon zest. Finally you divide this sandy coloured cream between the hollows of the peaches.

Your peaches need about 40 minutes in the oven. You on the other hand need to put your feet up for 40 minutes with a cup of tea or glass of prosecco depending on the hour (I think 5 o clock is about the right time for the-change-of-beverage-guard at this time of year! Unless of course you are making lunch, in which case 11 o clock is a perfectly acceptable time to pop a cork.) You could baste the peaches a couple of times, but it’s not essential. The peaches are ready when they are soft, tender and starting to collapse slightly, the flesh should be golden and slightly wrinkled and the stuffing blistering and crisp on top. Allow the peaches to sit – as always this is vital – for at least half an hour after coming out of the oven so the flavors can settle and  fruit wallow in the buttery, sugary juices.

When the time comes, serve each person two halves, making sure to spoon some of the sticky, buttery juices from the bottom of the dish over the peaches. As you hand each person their plate ask them to wait. Then, lead by example and spoon a large dollop of mascarpone on top of each half and then carefully unwrap your Amaretti – remember there is playing with fire to come! – and crumble the crisp domes over the white loveliness. Encourage guests to follow suit.

Eat and note how the tender, baked peach flesh, the butter laden/slightly almondy/distinctly lemony stuffing, the thick and dastardly good marcarpone and the brittle topping come together into a pretty glorious whole and then mumble (full mouth is forgivable) ‘What a good combination.’

I think these peaches are best about 45 minutes after coming out of the oven, so they are just still a little warm and the sticky juices are thick but spoonable. Having said that, I made a tray for a supper last week and they sat for about 5 hours before we ate them! They were room temperature and superb. If you do keep them overnight, keep them in the fridge, but remember to pull them out about half-an-hour before eating. I also like a two halves for breakfast with greek yogurt.

Pesche Ripiene. Stuffed peaches.

The seed for baked peaches planted by Jess. This recipe adapted from Claudia Roden’s Recipe (which in turn was taken from Sergio Torelli’s recipe) in one of my very favorite cook books’ The Food of Italy.’

serves 4

  • 4 ripe peaches
  • 50 g soft butter plus more for buttering the dish
  • 50 g soft brown sugar
  • 1 egg yolk
  • Amaretti biscuits
  • a hefty pinch of the zest of a unwaxed lemon

To serve

  • Mascarpone
  • More Amaretti biscuits for crumbling

Set your oven to 180° / 350F

Wash the peaches and rub them dry. Cut peaches in half, remove the stone and then use a teaspoon to scoop away any hard flesh or fragments of stone that might be left in the hollow. Arrange the peach halves cut-side-up in a buttered oven dish.

Wrap the Amaretti in some paper or put them in a small plastic bag and then crush them using a rolling-pin. In a small bowl mash together the butter, sugar, crushed Amaretti, egg yolk and lemon zest. Spoon a walnut sized blob of this mixture into the hollows of each peach half.

Bake for 40 minutes – basting a couple of times – or until the fruit is tender, golden and a little wrinkled at the edges. Allow the peaches for sit for at least 30 minutes before serving.  Serve with mascarpone and more Amaretti for crumbling.

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Filed under almonds, biscuits and biscotti, cream, food, fruit, peaches, Puddings, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, summer food

Best to wait

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a woman in possession of a tomato fortune must want to stuff some. She might also like to slice a couple thickly for beside her mozzarella, chop some roughly for her salad, skin a kilo carefully for her sauce and crush others enthusiastically for her pappa al pomodoro. 

It was a rash and wholly impractical decision to buy an entire tray of tomatoes from the market, especially given that I was already hot, bothered and well-laden with two kilos of potatoes, a melon the size of a rugby ball and sweaty baby who was doing his best to wiggle out of the sling. It was a deeply unpleasant walk home, the sun beating down, the potato bag cutting into the crook of my arm, the wooden tray issuing forth splinters, my pitiful triceps quivering like softly set jelly and Luca squirming and crying. I considered abandoning some of my load at the corner of Via Marmorata! But then he stopped crying and giggled, so I decided to keep him. The courtyard of my building has never seemed so long or sun soaked. I cursed all 32 steps and flung open the door before dropping everything, including myself, on the cool tiled floor of the living room.

I sat on the floor for some time while my son – resisting sleep – gleefully bashed tomatoes, first against his mouth and then against the floor. The tomatoes were firm, but not that firm! So we crawled from the living room floor to the kitchen floor and ate the casualty squashed on toast rubbed with garlic, doused with olive oil and sprinkled with salt. Well I ate – and noted that I could live contentedly for days on just bread, tomatoes, oil and salt (and the odd anchovy) –  while Luca smeared enthusiastically and squealed before sleep got the better of him and he conked-out on my lap.

But enough of this rambling! Lets talk about stuffed tomatoes.

I’ve had the misfortune to encounter some pretty dreary stuffed tomatoes in my time. I’ve also – thanks to a respectable number of holidays in Greece and now seven years in Italy – eaten some good ones. Some very good ones in fact, particularly here in Rome where they are called pomodori al riso (tomatoes with rice.) Romans adore their pomodori al riso. They make them at home of course, but are just as likely to buy them from a canteen-like tavola calda or the local forno (bakery) where vast trays of stuffed tomatoes surrounded by a sea of diced potatoes are baked in the bread ovens until their red flesh is tantalizingly wrinkled and intensely flavoured, the rice moist, plump and tender and the potatoes golden-on-top but soft and sticky underneath, the delicious consequence of wallowing in the oily, tomatoey juices that collect in the tray.

Pomodori al Riso, like much of Rome’s traditional cooking, are without frills, simple, judicious and delicious. Excellent tomatoes are hollowed out and then this jumble of pulp, flesh and seeds mixed with rice, garlic, basil, olive oil and salt to make a stuffing. After a good rest, the stuffing is spooned back into the tomato shells which are then nestled amongst some diced potatoes on a shallow tray before being baked. Then – and this is vital – the baked tomatoes are left to rest for an hour or two in which time the flavors settle, the rice swells and the oily juices from the pan soak back into the tomatoes and potatoes. Good stuffed tomatoes do indeed come to those who wait.

Romans know not just to wait, they also know that the key to good stuffed tomatoes is the right tomatoes. Of course stuffing is important too! As is the kind of olive oil, the type of rice (arborio,) the basil, the garlic, the potatoes and the baking. But the key is tomatoes that burst with sun and flavor, whose sweet fruitiness is balanced by just enough acidity, whose deep curves are as firm and fleshy as Monica Bellucci’s, tomatoes that smell of the tangled vine they grew on. They must be the right size too, about the size of a squashed tennis ball.

Having chosen your tomatoes, you need to slice a lid from the stalk end of each one. Then, in order to create your vessel, you must scoop out the pulp, seeds and flesh from each fruit. A teaspoon is the best tool for this job, be careful not to pierce the outer flesh and skin. Now remember, wateriness is the enemy, so sprinkle a little salt in the cavity of each tomato and set them cut side down on clean tea towel to drain while you set about making your stuffing.

Examine your bowl of pulp, seeds and flesh! Are there any particularly tough, white bits of core? If so, remove them and then blast the jumble of tomato innards with an immersion blender or snip energetically with a pair of scissors (I love to snip energetically) until you have an even pulp. Then add the rice (a generous tablespoon for each tomato plus two for luck), some finely chopped garlic, tons of torn basil, an unruly quantity of good olive oil , black pepper and a fearless quantity of salt to the pulp. Stir, taste, add more salt (it should be courageously seasoned) and leave the mixture to rest – and again this is vital – for at least 45 minutes. At this point, I too like a 45 minute rest, preferably with a cup of iced lemon tea, three biscuits and an episode of desert Island discs.

Once both you and your stuffing are well rested, spoon the stuffing into the tomato shells you have sat in a lightly greased oven dish or lipped oven tray. The tomato shells should only be 3/4 full giving the rice space to expand and swell as it cooks. Put the lids on the tomatoes (I went cross-eyed trying to the reunite the eight lids with the eight tomatoes. There were some swingers.) and scatter some diced potatoes around your red globes. Another slosh of olive oil wouldn’t go amiss. Now maneuver the dish into the oven – which you have conscientiously remembered to pre-heat to 180° – for about 45 minutes – an hour. Remove from the oven and then wait. And wait.

I waited 2 hours before eating one of my tomatoes. It’s hot in Rome and even hotter in my kitchen so my Pomodori al riso were still quite warm. They had collapsed further, slumped really, like me on the living room floor, making them seem even more wrinkled. Good wrinkles though. The rice was as plump as Luca’s bottom. I was glad I’d been so heavy handed with the seasoning. A pool of sticky, oily, tomatoey juice had collected in the bottom of the dish and I made sure to turn the potatoes in it.  I also had spoonful of ricotta di pecora beside my tomato which was entirely unnecessary (the ricotta that is) but very nice.

(As usual) I have been procrastinating and faffing over this post for weeks! Thank goodness for Jo’s post which, like so many of her posts, inspired me and guided me.

Pomodori al riso Tomatoes stuffed with rice

Serves 4

  • 8 firm, fruity, fleshy and flavorsome medium-sized tomatoes
  • salt
  • 8 leaves of fresh basil
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 10 tablespoons of risotto rice (I use arborio)
  • a very generous 100 ml extra virgin olive oil plus a little more for the potatoes
  • pepper
  • 1 kg potatoes
Cut the tops off the tomatoes and set them aside. One by one, hold the tomatoes over a bowl and using a teaspoon, scoop out their insides – flesh, seeds, and juice – and let it all fall into the bowl. Sprinkle a little salt in the cavity of each tomato and then place them cut side down on clean tea towel so any excess water can drain away.
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Pass the tomato flesh, seeds and juice through a food mill or blast it briefly with an immersion blender. Peel and very finely chop the garlic and add it to the tomato. Rip the basil leaves into small pieces and add them to the tomato. Add the rice and olive oil to the tomato. Season the mixture very generously with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Stir and then leave the mixture to sit for at least 45 minutes.
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Peel and chop the potatoes into 1″ dice. Put the potatoes in a bowl, pour over a little olive oil and sprinkle over a little salt and then using your hands toss the potatoes so they are well coated with oil.
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Sit your empty tomatoes in a lightly greased oven proof dish.  Spoon the rice mixture into the shells so they are 3/4 full. and then put the lids back on the tomatoes. Scatter the diced potato around the tomatoes. Slide the tray into the oven and bake for about 45 minutes or until the tomatoes are soft and just starting to shrivel and the rice is plump and tender and the potatoes are soft and golden.
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Allow the tomatoes to sit for at least an hour before eating.
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Filed under olive oil, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats Rome, recipes, Roman food, summer food, tomatoes, Uncategorized

Splendid spears

Lately I’ve been eating asparagus.

So much asparagus in fact, that my fruttivendolo shook his head as I, excuse me, we approached his stall the other (late) morning. ‘Sono finiti’ he said, nodding at the vegetable void between the melanzane and zucchine. ‘E le ciliegie (cherries)?’ I asked. ‘Sono finite anch’e le ciliegie’ he replied, nodding at the space between the last of the apricots and two punnets of strawberries sitting forlornly like the last two children to be picked for the rounders team. Then he tapped his watch and clicked his tongue ‘Ma a quest’ora cara, che t’aspetti’  (‘But at this hour dear, what did you expect!’)  What did I expect indeed, that this hour! The hour at which any self-respecting signora already has her napkin tucked around her knees, her knees tucked under the table and her first olive oil and lemon doused spear at her parted lips.

I’ve heard real asparagus aficionados possess a special tall, narrow pan with an ingenious basket system in which to boil/steam their splendid spears. I don’t. I have however devised my own cunning system for cooking asparagus. My slightly precarious and mildly dangerous method involves securing my bundle with string, chopping off all the woody ends at once so the base of the bundle is flat and then balancing said bundle, spears skyward, in the middle of a pan of enough vigorously boiling water to come three-quarters of the way up the asparagus. I then wedge a wooden spoon through the spears and under one handle, before covering the pan with a clean tea towel. This way the stems of the asparagus cook until tender in the boiling water while the delicate tips, the points d’amour, cook in the steam under their tea towel turban. Are you still with me? No! It’s probably better that way.

Having risked all sorts of kitchen mishaps I eat my boiled/steamed spears dipped in butter most of the time. Preferably unsalted butter made with cream from Volpetti. I leave a slice of the sweet, white butter in the warm kitchen so it’s extremely soft but not melted, and then I swipe my spears across the slab and crumble some salt over the top. A large napkin strategically tucked is advisable when eating asparagus dripping with butter, as is good bread and a glass of cold, crisp white wine. I’m also partial to plunging asparagus, spear fist, soldier style, into a soft-boiled egg or better still a pool of hollandaise. Since living in Italy I have also taken to eating my asparagus warm, doused with olive oil, fanned out like the spokes of a wheel on a plate and topped with very thin slices of parmesan.

So happy and busy am I with butter, boiled eggs, hollandaise, mayonnaise, olive oil and parmesan, and keeping in mind the fleeting nature of its season, I rarely want to do anything more with my asparagus. Except maybe, sometime in early June, having sated my asparagus fever, I’ll make a risotto.

I take Marcella Hazan’s advice when making Asparagus risotto, in that I partially cook the asparagus in salted boiling water first – about 3 to eight minutes depending on their size. Then I use this green tinted, asparagus infused cooking water as the broth. Marcella also suggests cutting the delicate tips from the asparagus, setting them aside and adding them at the very end. I think this is a very good suggestion. If you can control yourself when faced with a small bowl of delicious morsels that is?

Now you are going to need a glass of white wine for the risotto, so may I suggest you open the bottle now, pour yourself a glass and turn on the radio. Ready? Good! Let us begin. Having partially cooked and prepared your asparagus, set your broth in pan over a low heat at the back of the stove. Then in a wide, heavy based pan (I use my faithful le creuset) melt half the butter and the olive oil over a modest flame and then sauté the finely chopped onion, stirring attentively so it doesn’t brown but instead becomes as translucent and silky as a negligé.

Now add the asparagus pieces (but not the tips) to the soft onion and stir. Next add the rice and stir again so each grain is coated with butter before adding the wine and watching it splash and sizzle and pretty much evaporate away.

Now note the time – this will take about 18 minutes. Top up your glass, turn up the radio and begin adding the asparagus broth. Start with a hefty ladleful, turn the heat up just a little, stir and let the liquid almost disappear before adding the next ladleful. Continue like this, adding a ladleful at a time, stirring and nudging the rice while the broth is absorbed. After about 15 minutes start tasting. The rice is ready when it’s plump and tender but the center of the grain still has a slight firmness to its bite.

Pull the pan from the heat and let the risotto rest for a minute. To finish, beat in the rest of the butter and the grated parmesan moving your beating hand as fast as you can. You should hear a deep, thwack, thwack as you beat. The risotto should be creamy, moist, rich and emulsified. Finally add the asparagus tips, stir again and serve.

Have I ever mentioned I like risotto? Did I mention how much I like asparagus? Did I mention that butter and parmesan are both a heavenly match for the curious, sulfurous, vegetal nature of asparagus and so it’s hardly surprising how very very nice asparagus risotto can be.

A note about buying asparagus, it should be vital and fresh. Look for stalks that are firm, shiny and unblemished with tightly closed tips. Carnaroli rice works particularly well for asparagus risotto.

Risotto con gli asparagi    Asparagus Risotto

Adapted from Marcella Hazan’s recipe

serves 4

  • 500 g / 1 lb fresh asparagus
  • 1. 5 litres water
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 60 g /  2 ½ oz butter
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • a small mild onion
  • 450g Italian risotto rice
  • 125 ml dry white wine
  • 60 g / 2 ½ oz freshly grated parmesan
  • black pepper

Prepare the asparagus:

  • Holding your bunch of asparagus upside down, gently swish it in cold water. Then to snap off the tough woody bottoms, bend the stalk at the natural breaking point (where the color changes from white to green) 1 to 2 inches from the base.
  • In a large pan bring the water to the boil, add 1 teaspoon of salt and the asparagus. Once the water comes back to the boil, cover the pan. Allow the asparagus to cook for 4 minutes or until the asparagus are tender but still firm. Using a slotted spoon remove the asparagus from the water and set aside. Save the asparagus water.
  • When the asparagus is cool enough to handle. cut off the tips from the spears about 3 cm from the top and set aside. Cut the rest of the spears into 1 cm pieces, discarding any portion that is particularly tough or stringy.
And now for the risotto:
  • Add enough plain water to the asparagus water you have saved to make up 1.5  litres of liquid. Put this liquid in a pan over a low flame.
  • 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 cup-up asparagus spears but not the tips. Cook for a minute. stirring to coat the asparagus well.
  • Add the rice and stir it thoroughly 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 asparagus water a ladleful at a time allowing the liquid to be absorbed into the rice before adding more. continue adding  a ladleful at a time until it has all been used up and absorbed by the rice. This takes about 18 minutes. Turn off the heat. Allow risotto to rest for 1 minute.
  • Add the remainder of the butter, grated parmesan, a grind of black pepper and beat firmly. Add the asparagus tips and stir again.
  • Serve

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Filed under asparagus, food, pasta and rice, Rachel's Diary, recipes, summer food, vegetables

Just One

If I had to keep just one cookbook, it would be a red hardback wrapped in a bright blue sleeve with a lobster on the front, a single volume which comprises three of Elizabeth David’s classics of the kitchen; Book of Mediterranean Food, French Country Cooking and Summer Cooking. I might have a moment of doubt and consider Jane Grigson’s ‘Good Things’ or my dog-eared copy of ‘English Food’. I may clutch my battered copy of Simon Hopkinson’s Roast chicken and Other Stories closely for a moment, but my definitive choice, my desert island trilogy, would be my crustacean adorned copy.

Elizabeth David is not just my favorite food writer, she’s one of my favorite writers and one of the reasons I absconded to Italy. For years I’ve returned to at least one of her eight books or one of the two anthology’s of her articles, letters and notes – which are invariably scattered all over my flat – most days, be it in the kitchen, in a chair, writing here, or last thing at night in bed. Her introduction to Mediterranean food, description of Provence in French Provincial Cooking and anything from An omelette and a glass of wine are all favorites to fall asleep to.

She is a masterful writer: scholarly, witty, informative, elegant, fiercely opinionated, and the passion and enthusiasm with which she communicates her love of good food, well cooked is contagious. Her writing, essays, descriptions of weather, food, herbs, colours, smells, tastes, and of course her meticulously authentic recipes collected during her travels in France, Italy, Corsica, Malta, India, Eygpt and Greece are timeless (she began writing in the 1950’s) and as bright and brilliant as sunshine. But for all their bright brilliance, Elizabeth David’s books, illustrated with John Minton’s black and white drawings, are also a refuge, evoking a way of cooking and thinking about food so entirely different from the loud, fussy, over styled but often hollow food culture I can (and do) bombard myself with.

Over the last five months Elizabeth David has mostly been a bedside companion. But now I’m emerging – sleep deprived, disoriented, quite grumpy but uncharacteristically content – from my postnatal vortex and my very bonny five and a half month old son, if armed with a wooden spoon and a Tupperware lid, is happy to bounce away in the doorway, I’ve started working my way through the fringe of bookmarks. The first being Quiche Lorraine.

In truth, this particular recipe for Quiche Lorraine from French Country Cooking has been bookmarked for years rather than months and the food memory behind the bookmark is decades rather than years old. Two and a half decades to be precise, 25 years, since I ate a slice of Quiche Lorraine at the vast kitchen table of the Renault family during my traumatic but gastronomically revelatory French exchange with the horrid Carolyn I was 14. I even mentioned this recipe when I wrote about savory tarts a while back. But I never made it. Then the other week my friend Ruth came over for lunch and I wanted to make something tasty, simple and nice, a thank you of sorts for all the meals her and her husband have made for me. The bookmark for the Quiche was particularly prominent, a postcard from France no less, so I finally made this Quiche.

This is the Quiche Lorraine I ate in France all those years ago, simple, authentic, understated and very delicious. Short, crumbly, flaky pastry – made with plenty of good butter and some lard – encasing a delicate, quivering, softly set filling of fresh thick cream and eggs studded with chopped bacon. This is my Quiche touchstone, the example which shames all the crimes against Quiche I’ve had the misfortune to encounter, those heavy leaden triangles of heartburn inducing pastry filled with rubbery custard and stuffed to the gunnels with too much cheese, béchamel, three types of vegetable, pineapple, two paperclips and goodness knows what else.

This may seem a mere slip of a Quiche if you are used to heftier more elaborate things! But I assure you it’s a lovely slip of a Quiche.  Unfashionably rich and unhealthy by todays standards, what with all the butter, lard, bacon and cream and just my sort of thing. My sort of thing too I can hear you shouting, hooray for butter, lard, bacon and cream. And after all, there will be salad too, crisp and green, hopefully with some bitter leaves to contrast the soft dairy creaminess of the Quiche.

It is pretty straightforward to make and involves four nice kitchen tasks all of which I am happy to interpret as dance moves if given the appropriate quantity of alcohol; rolling, tucking, frying and whisking. First you make the pastry by rubbing butter and lard into flour (with a pinch of salt) until it reassembles breadcrumbs, adding some very cold water and bringing everything together into a ball. You chill the pastry for a while before rolling it out into a circle and tucking it into a tart tin, preferably one with a loose base.  Then the frying, of the diced bacon – the smell of which along with thoughts of roast beef brought was the smell that brought me back from the other side . Finally the whisking together of the thick, fresh cream – luscious and lovely – with two eggs. Once you have sprinkled your diced, fried and provocatively smelling bacon into the pastry case and poured over the pale yellow mixture you manoeuver your Quiche (set on a baking tray)  into the oven, bake it for 30 minutes for so or until it’s set but still with a slight wobble, blistered and golden.

The Quiche is best about 20 minutes after coming out of the oven, so it has time to settle and the filling firm up a little. Also the  texture and flavors – as is so often the case – are best appreciated when the Quiche is warm as opposed to hot.

It seems appropriate that I give you Elizabeth David’s recipe as she wrote it – word for word – in French Country Cooking. I have however added metric measurements and some of my own notes at the end.

Quiche Lorraine

From Elizabeth David’s French Country Cooking

For six people

  • 6oz / 180g flour
  • 2 oz /60g butter
  • 1 oz / 30g dripping / lard
  • 6 rashers bacon
  • 1/2 pint / 250 ml cream
  • 2 fresh eggs
  • salt and pepper
  • 1/2 gill / 75 ml of water

Make a pastry with the flour, butter, dripping, a pinch of salt and the water. Give it one or two turns and then roll it into a ball and leave it for 1 hour.

Line a flat buttered pie tin with the rolled out pastry. Onto the pastry spread the bacon cut into dice and previously fried for a minute. Now beat the eggs into the cream with a little salt and ground pepper; when they are well mixed, pour onto the pastry, put into a hot oven and bake for about 30 minutes.

Let it cool a little before cutting and serving.

My Notes.

I only used 50ml of water. I think very very cold water (I add an ice-cube to the measuring jug) is best. I rest my pastry in the fridge. My tart tin has a loose bottom. I bought it here. It is a trusty tart tin. When I roll the pastry out and tuck it in the tin, I leave a pastry overlap which compensates for any pastry shrinkage when it cooks. I make sure I press the pastry firmly into the tin. I don’t worry about neat tart edges. I set my oven to 175°. I bake my tart case blind for 10 minutes before adding the filling. When I bake blind I don’t use baking beans, I simply pick the pastry with a fork – the pastry may well puff up but it quickly sinks down again. I use double, heavy cream. I think the tart is best eaten about 20 minutes after coming out of the oven.

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Filed under antipasti, cream, Eggs, fanfare, food, pies and tarts, summer food, tarts

About time

After my three-month hiatus: an overcooked goulash of endings, beginnings and strange middles over seasoned with excuses, sabotage and a big glug of procrastination, I think I owe it to you, and myself for that matter, to get on with it. Please excuse me if I’m a little rusty.

At least I haven’t had to procrastinate over which recipe to share with you. Watermelon, ice cream and insalata caprese season combined with the fact I’ve been even more habitual than usual in the kitchen, seeking reassurance from the goulash with faithful recipes and my fallback: bread and cheese, has meant I’ve barely made anything I haven’t already written about! Except the pesto that is, or more precisely pesto alla trapanese.

The word pesto comes from the Italian verb pestare, which means to pound or grind, and is used to describe a thick raw sauce made by pounding a mass of aromatic herbs in a pestle and mortar with salt, garlic and perhaps nuts and cheese. Pesto can be stirred into pasta, spooned over soup or fish, or spread liberally over bread, pastry or pizza. The most famous pesto – excuse me if I avoid the words invented, original, authentic or perfect, I find they can cause problems – is pesto alla genovese, a glorious green amalgam of genovese basil, pine nuts, parmesan or pecorino sardo, ligurian olive oil and salt. I’m extremely fond of pesto alla genovese and I’ve written it about before.

Pesto alla trapaneze, which I’d heard of but never made until I opened this beautiful book, is a sauce made by pounding almonds, garlic and basil in a mortar and then adding olive oil, maybe cheese, salt and finely peeled, deseeded and chopped tomato. I suppose you could crudely translate it as Pesto Trapani style  (Trapani being a city on the west coast of Sicily that I’d very much like to visit) but why would you when it sounds so much nicer in Italian. It sounds better still in Sicilian, pasta cull’agghia. Apparently the genovese sailors who steered their ships in Trapani’s sickle-shaped port on the way to the orient brought the tradition of pesto to Sicilian shores, the local sailors then adopted and adapted the recipe using local ingredients, namely almonds instead of pine nuts and tomatoes

Considering tomatoes affinity with basil, cheese and garlic, and knowing what a good and handsome couple the soft sweet and sour flesh of tomatoes and pesto alla genovese make – neatly illustrated by another of my fallbacks, toast spread with pesto and topped with two half moons of grilled tomato – it’s hardly surprising pesto alla trapanese, which is essentially pesto alla genovese made with almonds and the addition of tomato, is quite delicious. You’ll discover how well almonds work in pesto, lending their milky, almost grassy nature and hint of bitterness to proceedings. You’ll see the way they pound into a soft nutty cream with the garlic, which provides a perfect base for the fragrant, spicy, most irritatingly likable of herbs: basil and its loyal comrades olive oil, tomatoes and cheese.

Ah yes, the cheese. The first recipe I found, and the one I follow pretty faithfully doesn’t include cheese. The absence of cheese means you can really taste the almonds and appreciate the way they temper and compliment the volatile garlic (much in the same way as in the Spanish ajo blanco, the excellent almond and garlic soup). Omitting the cheese also allows the spicy warmth of the basil to come through. Having said that, I also really like pesto alla trapanese made with cheese (I used a mixture of parmesan and pecorino), it’s a bolder, saltier sauce, richer and rounder. The nice thing is, you can choose! I suggest experimenting, the recipe is worth it. You could of course simply offer a bowl of freshly grated cheese at the table and people can add it if they wish.

I make pesto in a pestle and mortar. It’s not about being a purist or extremely authentic, it’s because I enjoy the pounding and grinding, in much the same way that I like whisking egg whites till my arms hurt, kneading bread dough with slightly demented enthusiasm and smashing ice cubes for cocktails with a rolling-pin while laughing hysterically and thinking of the woman who works behind the cheese counter – one of these is not true! Having boasted about my elbow grease I should probably note that there are many kitchen tasks I happily delegate to a clever tool or machine, just not pesto.  You can of course make pesto alla trapanese in a food processor. The method is pretty much the same for both man and machine.

First you pound or pulse the almonds and garlic into a fine flour. Then you add the washed and dried basil leaves. If you’re using a pestle and mortar, you want to work the leaves into the flour by grinding the ingredients firmly against the side of the mortar with the pestle, you want the basil to break up, dissolve almost, in much the same way as when you rub a tender leaf between your fingertips. Once the basil is incorporated, you stir in the cheese if you are adding it, and then add the olive oil in a thin steam while beating with small wooden spoon.

Pesto made in a pestle and mortar will always have a much coarser texture than pesto made with a machine, think rough as opposed to fine sandpaper, five o’ clock shadow as opposed to super clean shaved. I know what I prefer. If you are working in a food processor, add the olive oil at the same time as the basil and pulse until you have a creamy consistency. Turn off the machine and stir the cheese into the mixture by hand. Now you turn your attention to the tomatoes.

While your spaghetti in rolling around in plenty of well salted boiling water, you peel, deseed and roughly chop the tomatoes. It may seem like a bit of a bother to peel the tomatoes, well it can to me anyway, but I assure you it really isn’t and it’s an important step in this recipe! Skip it and you’ll end up with tough little red chunks and a rather watery sauce. Just before you drain the pasta you mix the tomatoes and the pesto together in a large serving bowl. When the spaghetti is ready – al dente as the Italian say, which means’ to the tooth’ and describes the point when the pasta is cooked and tender but still with a slight chewy bite – drain and then stir it into the pesto alla trapanese, adding a little of the pasta cooking water you have set aside if you feel the mixture needs loosening slightly, then you serve

The warmth of the pasta brings everything together,  heightening the nature of each ingredient and uniting them further into a harmonious tumble. A very good lunch, so much nicer than my goulash.

Spaghetti con pesto alla Trapanese

Adapted from a recipe in La cucina Siciliana by Maria Teresa di Marco e Marie Cecile Ferrè

Serves 4

  • 50g skinned almonds
  • 2 or 3 cloves garlic
  • 35 tender basil leaves
  • 50g parmesan or pecorino (or a mix of both) – this is optional
  • 100ml extra virgin olive oil
  • salt
  • 3 medium-sized tomatoes
  • 450g spaghetti (or di mafadine or orrichiette)
In a pestle and mortar:

Pound the almonds and garlic into a fine flour. Add the washed and carefully dried basil leaves into the flour by grinding the ingredients firmly against the side of the mortar with the pestle, you want the basil to break up, dissolve almost, in much the same way as when you press a tender leaf between your fingertips.

Once the basil is incorporated, stir in the cheese if  you are adding it, and then add the olive oil in a thin steam while beating with small wooden spoon. Taste and add a pinch of salt if necessary.

In a food processor:

Pulse the almonds and garlic into a fine flour. Add the washed and dried basil leaves along with the olive oil and pulse until you have a creamy consistency. Turn off the machine and stir the cheese into the mixture by hand if you are adding it. Taste and add a pinch of salt if necessary.

Continue both methods as follows:

Peel the tomatoes by plunging them into a bowl of boiling water for 60 seconds, remove them with a slotted spoon and plunge them into a bowl of iced water for 30 seconds – the skins should slip away. Cut the tomatoes in half, scoop out the seeds and cut away the hard central core. Rough chop the tomatoes.

Bring a large pan of well salted water to a fast boil and then cook the spaghetti until al dente.

While the spaghetti is cooking mix the tomatoes with the pesto in a large serving bowl. Drain the spaghetti – reserving some of the cooking water – and mix with the pesto. Add a little of the cooking water to loosen the pasta if you feel it is necessary. Serve immediately.

I can’t really believe I’ve written, never mind finished a post, I was starting to believe I would never come back! But I did, which has probably surprised me more than it will you. It will certainly surprise my brother Ben who took great pleasure in telling me he was so bored of waiting that he has deleted me from his favorites, bookmarks and at this point probably his computer. I think it will take more than one post to be reinstated.

I don’t intend to present you with the whole messy goulash, but the nature of the blog means we probably have some catching up to do. I promise rambling will always be accompanied by suggestions for a good lunch, or supper, or – if all goes according to plan – almond cake and lemonade. As always thank you very much for all your kind and thoughtful messages and patience. I hope you are having a good summer wherever you are.

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Filed under almonds, food, pasta and rice, recipes, sauces, summer food

One way of looking at a tomato.

If you approach Testaccio market from Via Aldo Manuzio and enter through the large gap – it’s not really an entrance as such, more an opening – opposite La Bottega delle idee and between the back of two fish stalls, you’ll happen upon a stall that just sells tomatoes.

The stall trades all year! But now, in late August, it’s at it’s most impressive and for the tomato ardent, mesmerizing, with all three sloping sides and the back wall stacked high with dozens and dozens of shallow boxes and crates filled with the most fantastic red fruit. The pungent, sweet-sour scent of tomatoes – some so ripe the uninitiated would think them done for – and the grassy scent of tangled vines hangs thickly in the August air.

Yesterday for example, at the front of the stall, were some impressively large, fleshy, lustrous orange-red Cuore di bue (oxhearts), bottom heavy, their curious shape reminiscent of a pouch with a gathered top. Not quite as large, but a similar colour, were a round, fleshy variety called Salamone I think, and beside them several boxes of ruby-red San marzano, like long plums, meaty and robust. There were crates of dark-red Datterini, pendulous orbs, some the size of fresh dates others like almonds, clinging to their tangle of vine. Some of the Datterini were as shrivelled as prunes – their thick skins as deeply wrinkled as my Aunt Edith who smoked 30 a day and worshipped the sun. Quite intentionally wrinkled I should add – the tomatoes that is, not my Aunt – so as to intensify their sweet and spicy flavour. There were slightly paler postbox-red cherry-sized Ciliegino, slightly larger pendulous Lancelot and slighly redder Piccadilly, as well as boxes of green, variegated Camone.

There were more, but the heat, the confusion of tomato names in Roman dialect and a rumbling stomach was compromising my research. The arrival of six boxes of Casolino Spagnoletto – the tomatoes on the far right of the next pictureand the offer of a tasting was timely. These are tremendous tomatoes, so deeply ribbed they appear fluted, and pretty enough to be worn as an Isabella Blow – esque head-piece. They have thick almost purple-red skin and meaty, intensely favoured flesh.

The tomato stall is more expensive than most of the other banchi, and quite rightly so, but it means we only visit occasionally. Yesterday being one of those occasions, for advice, and to buy the tomatoes above, one kilogram a piece of Salmone, Datterino and Casolino. You see I’ve just finished reading the third chapter of Paul Bertolli’s book; Made by hand, it’s called Twelve ways of looking at a tomato. It examines, looks, at the tomato in 12 ways: colour, juice, essence, shape, sauce, conserva, complement, braise, container, condiment, side dish and fruit. The chapter is beautifully written, poetic, inspiring, and technically brilliant. Maybe a little too technically brilliant for me at times, but fascinating and utterly engaging nonetheless. The chapter also includes 18 recipes, the first of which punctuates the sections on tomato colour and juice, a beautifully simple idea: a chilled three tomato soup. Bertolli calls it a Tricolour Gazpacho. My soup was not tricolour, but I’ll come deviation later.

This isn’t just soup, this is a tomato education! Well it was for me at least. You pulp three diverse varieties of tomato – variety by variety – in a paddle blender or (like me) with your hands which is much more fun. Then you pass the pulpy masses in turn through the mouli/food mill or sieve to produce three bowls of different tomato pureès. Bertolli call them soups, so I will too. You have three different tomato soups.

The soup of the round, soft, fleshly Salamone was the thickest, with a soft grainy texture and a mild – neither particularly sweet nor acidic – plummy taste. You could add it was a bit flabby, pudgy, but that wasn’t a terrible thing. The soup of the lovely ridged Casolino Spagoletto on the other hand, was thinner but more intensely flavoured; bright, minerally, sharp and nicely acidic. The juice of the small oval Datterini was the thinnest – all that thick tasty skin and very little flesh –  but by far the most intensely flavoured; concentrated, pungent, sweet and spicy, a tomato punch.

It’s fascinating stuff. Of course, I already knew different varieties of tomatoes have wildly differing characteristics: texture, flavour, sweetness, acidity, but having them before me like this, being able to taste, examine and compare was truly illuminating. Later I made three simple tomato sauces with the remaining tomatoes and produced three such radically diffrent sugi that we were, for want of a better word, gobsmacked. But I’ll talk about the sauce another day.

Now Bertolli does something very clever: he dilutes the soups accordingly so the consistency and thickness are all different, chills them, and then to serve he pours the three different soups over the back of a ladle into a bowl so they remain separate, like a layered cocktail. I have to admit glazing over slightly while reading this section of the recipe, and in light of the fact that two of my soups seemed far too thin to dilute, the colours were all rather similar and well, to be frank, it all sounded far too complicated for such a hot day, I didn’t even attempt ladle trick. After my tasting, I simply mixed the three soups together and added – as Bertolli suggests – some very finely chopped sweet red onion, cucumber, red pepper and herbs, a little more salt and chilled the soup for 4 hours.

The soup. Well, it’s a pretty marvelous elixir, the three varieties coming together into a terrific, very red whole. Having been worried about the texture, it turned out to be spot on: the pulpy grainy Salamone providing body and proving a bit of flab is a good thing, the Casolini lending brightness and acidity and the Datterini an intense sweet and spicy punch. The very finely diced salsa is a lovely addition, augmenting the soups flavour and texture.

We liked the simplicity of this soup, especially in late August when tomatoes are so good and kitchen activity is at a minimum, it seems such a fitting way, maybe the most fitting way – after bruschetta that is – to appreciate pure, simple, tomato goodness, their very essence if you like. I have a soft spot for chilled soup; vichyssoise, cucumber, almond and this is maybe the nicest bowlful I have tasted for a while.

I’ve included the Bertolli version in full if you’d like to try the clever ladling. But first, my slightly shabby adaptation. You still pulp the tomatoes separately – so you can have a tasting. Earnest face, clipboard and note taking is optional  – but then you mix all three soups together into a slightly less unsophisticated, but equally delicious, multi dimensional, bowl of tomato joy.

Last thing – sorry this is all so long-winded already – if you are considering the clever layered cocktail idea, Bertolli suggests you use diffrent coloured tomatoes so the contrast between the three soups is even more apparent. I suggest you talk to your fruit and veg man or woman and ask which three varieties they think would work best. There is not a profusion of coloured varieties here in Rome and my tomato man – whose face suggested he wasn’t particularly impressed by most of the Technicolor varieties –  didn’t think that green tomatoes would work, so we opted for red, red and red tomatoes. If you are going for my all in option, bear in mind you want one variety to be fleshy and pulpy, another with good acidity and the third with an intense spicy sweetness if possible.

After so many words, it seems almost comical that this is such a simple recipe.

Chilled three tomato soup

Adapted from Paul Bertolli’s Made by Hand

Serves 4

  • 1.5kg Ripe, tasty, tomatoes (0,5 kg each of three varieties each with different aroma’s, texture, acidity, sweetness and colour)
  • Salt
  • For the salsa -3 tablespoons of each of the following very very finely diced: cucumber, sweet red onion, sweet red pepper. 1 tablespoon of each of the following finely chopped: chives, parsley, basil.
  • extra virgin olive oil.

Core and quarter the three types of tomatoes and place them, one type at a time, in an electric mixer with a paddle with a little salt and process until pulpy. You can also do this with your hands but do not use a blender or food processor you will end up with foam as rigid as cotton candy.

Pass the pulp through a food mill set with a plate that is sized smaller than the tomato seeds, or sieve it into a clean bowl. Rinse the mixer and food mill and proceed with the second variety in the exactly the same way. When all three varieties are pureèd and in three separate bowls, taste, season with a little salt and taste again.

Now you have two options

1 – Having tasted the three soups, mix them together, check and adjust the seasoning if necessary and then add the salsa of finely chopped vegetables and herbs. Now chill the soup for at least four hours. Serve with some raw Extra virgin olive oil poured judiciously on top.

2 – If you would like to try the Bertolli tricolour method, it is as follows.

When all three types are pureèd, check the consistency. Tomatoes of diffrent types will inevitable produce thicker or thinner pureès relative to one another. In order that the soups greet rather than invade, each other in the bowl, you may need to adjust them with a little cold water so as to achieve a liquid that is pourable without being runny.

To start season each soup with salt. If you find the flavour of the soups to be satisfying as is, refrigerate them until fully chilled – at least 4 hours. If you would like to augment the texture add the salsa described above before chilling for at least four hours.

To serve the soup, use two ladles and scoop up about 1/3 cup of two of the pureès. Pour the soups simultaneously into the backside of the bowl and allow them to flow forward to meet you. Ladle an equal amount of the third soup in the front of the bowl and at the line where the first two meet.

My next post is going to be so short you might even miss it.

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Filed under food, rachel eats Rome, recipes, soup, summer food, tomatoes

A suggestion

As I write this, I’m thinking about my sister Rosie and my brother-in-law Paul, who thanks to Paul’s metamorphosis into a veritable Monty Don, have a vegetable patch brimming with the most lovely, pale-green courgettes, each one crowned, like a Las Vegas show girl, with a golden-yellow flower. They’re excellent courgettes, quite unlike the dark-green spongy fleshed specimens you find in English supermarkets. As a matter of fact, they’re very like the courgettes, le zucchine romane, we find here in Rome, sweet, with tender flesh and an almost creamy texture when cooked.

Hardy surprisingly, there have been rather a lot of courgettes consumed in a certain house in West London this summer. When I visited a couple of weeks ago, Rosie and Paul were still enjoying their home-grown bounty, there was soup I think, pasta with buttery courgettes, courgette fritters, courgette carbonara, delicious stuff all of it. But there were also telling signs: a look, a sigh, a slightly weary ‘Oh really, again, lovely’. Saturation point was clearly not far off. After I left, courgette plants thriving, the situation assumed slightly comic proportions as Paul – who has taken on all garden and cooking duties since their little girl arrived – trapped in a sort of courgette groundhog day, continued to produce a succession of courgette themed suppers until eventually – we’d seen the signs – my sister snapped. The inevitable courgette meltdown. I can’t be sure, but I fear long green vegetables may have been sacrificed. A break from homegrown produce, and a real holiday, ensued.

I’m glad to report that it was only a temporary courgette hiatus, and that Rosie, Paul and Beattie are now back home with renewed enthusiasm for their garden bounty. So this is for them, a suggestion, a large open faced Italian omelette with vegetables and cheese: a Courgette and Ricotta Frittata. I was all set to E mail my sister, but then it occurred to me that some of you might like this recipe. It’s hardly groundbreaking I know, but it’s a useful and tasty one. It also crossed my mind that I’m in the middle of an extremely long and rambling post about tomatoes which I’m not sure anyone is actually going to read and that this might provide some light relief before I press publish on that tomato epic.

We make a frittata of one sort or another most weeks: Onion and potato, Leek and goats cheese, Asparagus, Salt cod -I must write about this frittata one day because it’s delicious, Pea, potato and spring onion (any more than three ingredients in a frittata and Vincenzo looks puzzled) and now this, a discovery this summer, Courgette and ricotta frittata. I’ve made various courgette frittatas in the past, but I’ve always found them to be rather watery, even when I’ve sautéed the courgette slowly and patiently to try and evaporate some of the water away.

This recipe was, this recipe is, a little revelation: you grate the courgette into a clean teatowel or cheese cloth and then you squeeze out – really squeeze – as much water as you can. This means the courgette is drier when you saute it, more flavoursome and more inclined to absorb the butter infused with savory spring onion. In short, it makes for a much tastier frittata. The addition of ricotta – the soft, white, granular cheese made by re-cooking the watery residue left over from cheese making – makes for a nice addition to proceedings. The slightly tart sheep’s milk ricotta  – ricotta di pecora is especially good if you can find it. We like this ricotta on hot toast with chestnut honey.

Back to the fittata. It’s all very straightforward, I’m sure you know how to make a frittata, but just in case: you soften the spring onion in butter and olive oil, then you add the grated courgette and saute it gently until it’s wilted, tender, and any water that wasn’t squeezed away has evaporated. Now you mix the courgette and onion mixture with beaten eggs and ricotta. Now you pour the mixture back into the frying pan and cook the frittata gently over a low flame until it is nearly set. You finish the fritatta under the grill (if you don’t have a grill you can invert in onto a plate and then slide it back into the pan.

Now as much as I like carefully made frittata/ frittate – pesky plurals, I do tend to think of them rather dismissively; a kitchen standby, a Tuesday lunch, oh that old thing. Well. I did. A month or so ago we went to a pretty formal celebration lunch where, amongst other things, we were served a fantastic antipasti, simple, delicious and in such good taste. There were plates of bruschetta di pomodori –  toasted bread rubbed with garlic, topped with chopped cuore di bue tomatoes, basil and extra virgin olive oil, vast platters of home cured prosciutto and last but not least, six Courgette and sheep’s milk ricotta frittate  – deep, yellow circles flecked with green – punctuating the long tables. Delicious stuff. We helped ourselves to a slice of bruschetta, a curl of prosciutto, a wedge of frittata. I made a mental note: do not underestimate the frittata.

Last thing, I’m sure you know, it’s really important you season this frittata properly,  both the courgettes and the ricotta are mild tasting: they need seasoning. A good pinch of salt in with the courgettes when they are cooking with the spring onions, and another generous pinch – along with a good grind of black pepper – to the egg and ricotta mixture. Remember, ‘Where would we be without salt.’ James Beard.

Courgette and ricotta frittata

  • 200g courgettes – the pale, slim zucchine romane are particularly good
  • 3 or 4 (about 150g) spring onions
  • knob of butter
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 7 large free range eggs
  • 120g of ricotta (sheep’s milk ricotta is ideal but cow’s milk ricotta is fine)
  • more butter for cooking the frittata

Wash the courgettes really throughly – they have a habit of collecting grit in the ridges, Then top and tail them saving the flowers for a salad or to fry in batter. Now grate the courgette on the coarse side of your grater into a very clean, linen teatowel.

Now twist the ends of the tea towel, creating a ball of courgette and squeeze as much liquid as you can out of the courgettes into a bowl. I think some people might recommend drinking this disturbing green juice, advocating its heath giving properties, I didn’t.

Wash the spring onions and slice them into fine rings. Melt a small knob of butter and a tablespoon of olive oil in your non-stick frying pan and saute the spring onion over a gentle flame until it’s soft and translucent. Add the grated courgette and a pinch of salt and saute gently for about 4 – 6 minutes or until the courgette is soft and very tender. Meanwhile in a large bowl gently beat the 7 large eggs.

Now gently whisk in the ricotta into the eggs – it will be lumpy, this is fine – and generously season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. By now the courgette should be ready, so tip them into the bowl with the egg mixture and stir. Put the frying pan back on the heat – a low flame – add another very small knob of butter and once it has melted roll the melted butter around the pan before pouring in the egg and courgette mixture. Use a fork to even out the surface a little and then allow the frittata to cook gently for 6 – 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat the grill. By now the frittata will have set underneath – you can see when you shake the pan from side to side very gently – but will still be runny on top. Put the frittata under the hot grill for about a minute – keep an eagle eye – it will puff up slightly, set firm and turn golden brown on top. Pull the frittata from under the grill and slide it onto a serving plate

Wait at least 15 minutes before serving the frittata so the flavours can settle.

Serve with sliced tomatoes dressed with salt and olive oil or a green salad. We ate the second half of our frittata for lunch with Bruschetta di pomodori.

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Filed under courgettes, Eggs, food, Frittate, recipes, summer food, vegetables