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no laughing matter

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Oh dear‘ said a friend when I told her I was going to write about turnips. ‘Does anybody actually like them?’ I was about to say I do, but she was off on a beetroot and radish tangent before changing the subject entirely, so I just nodded. Afterwards it crossed my mind she was probably referring to the early winter variety, stout, purple-tinged turnips which, if left too long, can become stringy and harsh, which is where the ridicule comes in I suppose. ‘What is the difference between turnips and snot? Children will eat snot‘ was the joke David Stott told us in the playground. We rolled about laughing until our seven-year-old sides hurt. The giggles were carried into the school dining room where waterlogged turnips mashed with carrots and cheap margarine were shunted around our plates.

Catch them before they turn though, and winter turnips can be excellent, especially roasted, creamed with potatoes and butter or, as I once ate in France, glazed to serve with ham. It is not the early variety we are taking about today though, but late winter/early spring turnips, white spheres with a soft matt glow, bunched together by their bright green leaves.

Three more, bunches?’ checked my faithful fruit and veg man at my local market here in Testaccio in Rome. ‘What are you doing with all these turnips?’ Then he laughed as if there might be turnip funny business, in which moment he looked just like his heavy-browed, twinkly-eyed dad, my other fruit and veg man. ‘Don’t forget to eat the leaves‘ he said stuffing the bunches in a bag in the same way I shove laundry in the basket when I am cross, and before I could say please be careful I need to take a picture. ‘‘ ‘Ste cazzo de foto!’ he said laughing even harder.

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Turnip leaves, or turnip tops as we call them in England, are an excellent green vegetable reminiscent of mild mustard greens with their slightly peppery warmth. Romans love them, particularly cooked twice, which we will come to shortly. The turnips themselves are crisp and sweetly peppery, and – as I have discovered in this last month of turnip cooking – are surprisingly adaptable, making wonderful soup, risotto and pickles. They are also good roasted, which prompted Vincenzo to remind me – for the umpteenth time – that turnips were one of the earliest cultivated vegetables, and an important food for the Ancient Romans. There is also the story of the Roman war hero Curius Dentatus who, at the start of the third century, refused a large amount of gold to defect to the side of Hostile Samnites because he was busy roasting turnips over a fire.

When choosing turnips look for bright, lively leaves and smallish white bulbs. Like people: avoid those that are too bloated, faded or smell too strongly. Young turnips only need a very thin layer peeling away. Their greens however are as good as three-year-old boys at hiding mud and grit, so give them a damn good wash. Now get cooking, and remember, turnips are no laughing matter. Snigger.

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Pasta with turnip greens and ricotta

One of the most useful and delicious things I have learned since living in Rome is to ripassare greens. It means to cook twice, first boiling briefly and then re-cooking in a skillet with garlic scented olive oil. The greens can then be served as a side dish, or mixed with pasta for a quintessential southern Italian dish. Turnip greens, with their slight bitterness, work beautifully ripassata and mixed with pasta, especially orecchiette, or little ears. The key is a generous amount of good extra virgin olive oil, never letting the garlic burn and making sure the greens are glistening. I also like a blob of ricotta and a dusting of parmesan or pecorino on the finished dish.

serves 4

  • The greens from two bunches of turnips
  • salt
  • 5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 450 g short pasta, ideally orecchiette
  • Ricotta (optional)
  • parmesan or pecorino

Wash and dry the turnip greens. Roll them into a loose bundle and chop roughly.

Bring a large pot of water to a fast boil, salt generously (the rule of thumb is 1 litre of water/ 10 g salt for every 10o g of pasta) and stir. Add the greens, boil for a minute then use tongs or a slotted spoon to lift them from the water, drain and set aside.

Now tip the pasta to the pot, set the timer and cook until al dente.

Meanwhile, peel and gently crush the garlic cloves with the back of a knife so they are split but still intact. Warm the olive oil and garlic in a large skillet over a medium/low flame until the garlic is fragrant (be careful it doesn’t burn) add the greens and a pinch of salt and toss and turn until they are glistening with oil. Turn off the flame

Once the pasta is cooked, drain it – saving a little of the pasta cooking water – and tip onto the greens and toss. If it seems dry, add a spoonful of pasta cooking water, and toss again. Divide between warm bowls topping with a blob of ricotta if you wish and finishing with parmesan or pecorino.

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Pickled turnips

Apparently my mum craved pickles when she was pregnant with me, which might explain my extreme enthusiasm. I only wish I had known sooner that DIY pickling was so easy. Since learning this simple technique I have pickled cauliflower, beets, carrots, radishes and – best of all – turnips. It is something about the crispy, peppery sweetness sharpened by spiced vinegar that hits the pickle spot. I am not very discerning and would eat these with anything, but particularly cured and boiled meat, strong cheese, savory tarts, in sandwiches like a sharp chutney and beside rice and beany concoctions. Some people like to add a beetroot to the mix to give a pleasing pink tint. I had intended to do this, but forgot to buy one.

  • 1 cup /250 ml water
  • 4 tbsp / 40 g coarse salt
  • 3 tbsp / 30 g sugar
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 5 black peppercorns
  • 1 cup / 250 ml white wine vinegar
  • 1 llb / 500 g turnips (which is usually the bulbs of two bunches)
  • 1 small beetroot (optional)

Put the water, salt, sugar, bay leaves and peppercorns in a pan, over a medium flame and warm until the salt and sugar have completely dissolved. Remove from the heat and allow to cool.

Add the vinegar to the pan. Wash a jar with very hot water and in a warm oven so it is sterilized.

Peel the turnips and beet, then cut into 3 mm or so wedges. Put the wedges in the jar, cover with the liquid. Seal and leave for at least a day and up to a week. Once opened, store in the fridge.

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Turnip soup with garlicky turnip greens

I learned to write recipes whilst helping my friend and chef Mona Talbott with the American Academy in Rome soup book some years back. Every Sunday morning for seven months, we would meet in the Academy kitchen, drink coffee, then begin: Mona cooking, me noting quantities and details. Then we both ate soup. At the end of the day I would walk down the curving Gianicolo hill, several mason jars filled with soup clinking in time with my every step. This soup was one of my absolute favourites. It is a pure, simple and smooth soup which – to me – feels like the essence of turnip with a pleasing hint of aromatic, herbal bay. Into the pale soup, you swirl dark green turnip greens which have been wilted in olive oil and garlic, which elevates the soup to a whole new level of taste and texture. The key is patiently sweating the water out of the turnips before you add more liquid. If you like a more decisive stronger flavour use stock. Garlic rubbed/olive oil soaked toast is nice with this.

serves 4

  • 2 lb / 1 kg turnips with greens
  • a small potato
  • 2 medium onions
  • 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • a knob (2 tbsp) butter
  • 1 liter water, vegetable stock or light chicken stock
  • 2 bay leaves
  • salt and pepper
  • for sautéing the greens  – 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil and a clove of garlic

Strip the greens from the turnips and set aside. Peel the turnips, potato and onion and slice thinly.

Warm 3 tbps olive oil and the butter in a large, heavy based pot over a medium low heat. Add the onion and sweat until soft and translucent, about 5 mins. Add the turnips, potatoes and a pinch of salt to the pot, and continue cooking for 10 minutes, stirring every now and then, allowing the turnips to soften and sweat off some liquid.

Add the liquid and bay leaf to the pot, bring the soup to the boil and then reduce to a simmer for 15 mins. Remove the bay leaf, the use an immersion blender to reduce the soup to a smooth puree. Season with salt as required.

Wash the turnip greens and dry them. Roll them into a bundle and then chop roughly. Peel and gently crush the garlic with the back of a knife.

Warm 3 tbsp olive oil and the clove of garlic in a sauté pan over a medium/low flame. Once the garlic is fragrant and just starting to colour (it must not brown or will be bitter) add the greens and sauté them until they are wilted and glistening with olive oil. Remove the garlic and then tip the greens into the soup and stir. Serve with a grind of black pepper and a swirl of olive oil.

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Turnip risotto

Risotto was suggested by another stall holder at Testaccio market. I was wary. Then I tried, and was surprised and delighted by the delicate, vegetal and ever-so-slightly-peppery risotto that came together one grey Wednesday lunchtime in Rome in February. I suppose you could argue that any vegetable sautéed and oil and butter, given body by plump rice and whipped into creaminess by a mantecatura of butter and parmesan cheese is going to be good. As with the soup above, if you are worried about intensity of flavour, use stock. If you are just two, still make enough for four: the remaining risotto can be moulded into balls, rolled in breadcrumbs and fried to make arancine.

serves 4

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • a walnut sized knob of butter
  • a small onion
  • 3 turnips, ideally with greens
  • 400 g risotto rice
  • 100 ml white wine
  • 1 litre of water, veg or chicken stock
  • 50 g grated parmesan cheese
  • 30 g butter

Strip the greens fron the turnips. Scrub the turnips (only peel them if you feel it is necessary) and dice them. Wash the greens, dry them, roll them into a loose bundle, then chop the roughly and set aside.

Warm the stock in a small pan and keep warm at the back of the stove. Peel and finely chop the onion. In a large, deep frying pan, warm the olive oil over a medium flame, add the onion and cook it for 3 minutes or so. Add the diced turnip and sauté for another 2 mines. Add the rice and stir until every grain is coated with oil, add the wine, which will woosh and evaporate.

Now look at the clock – this will take about 17 minutes so pour yourself a glass of wine – start adding the stock ladleful by ladleful, stirring all the time, only adding the next when the previous one is absorbed. After 10 minutes add the turnip greens and then continue with the stock. Once all the stock is absorbed and the rice is plump and creamy, pull the pan from the heat and wait one minute. Then add the butter and parmesan and beat everything together with a wooden spoon (this beating is called the mantecatura and it is what makes a risotto so beautifully creamy).

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Roasted turnips, carrots and red onions with farro

I am not sure if I would turn down a lots of gold for them, but I do like roasted turnips very much. As is the case with so many vegetables, roasting turnips means water evaporates and the natural sugars and flavours are concentrated. The turnips, red onion and carrots should shrivel slightly, crisping and curling at the edges. Farro, another ancient and modern Roman staple, provides a tasty, nutty, no-nonsense base. I feel as if I could march a very long way after eating this. It is also delicious. I have been known to top this with a poached egg or crumble over feta cheese. Ideally you want to keep a portion for the next day, when it is even better

This post was at the suggestion of the brilliant food community food52, where I am also sharing – a slightly shorter version – of this post. This final recipe will be on Food52 site in the next couple of weeks. I will put up the link as soon as I can.  – R

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what is it like?

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 Writing and cooking – June 15th – 20th 2015 – Sicily

Ask anyone who has ever sat in the courtyard at Case Vecchie at dusk with a drink in one hand and a hot panella in the other, what Case Vecchie is like, and you could well be met with silence. Ask them about the valley that arches behind the house, that first crush of wild fennel, chamomile and mint underfoot, the feel of ancient twisted vines warm from the sun, or how Filippo stirs the vat of brilliant white ricotta. Ask them too about the table at the far end of the cobbled courtyard, and the food eaten at it. In fact ask them, demand even, that they tell you more about Sicilian food: fresh ricotta, sharp pecorino, dishes scented with mint and wild fennel, Fabrizia and Giovanna’s orange marmalade, artichokes, anchovies, lemons, capers, il timballo, freshly fried panelle, the majestic cassata. Now watch the stirring of memories and wait until – eventually –  the words and descriptions tumble out.

I’d encountered the silence, and then the words, many times over the years, from friends, from cooks and writers I admired. Everyone – it seemed to my envious ears –  had visited a cooking school in a valley in Sicily. So great and deep was the praise, that I wondered if it really could be so extraordinary, so beautiful, so enchanting. Then last year, I was to discover it was just as the silences and words had promised, and more. It is not simply another cooking school, but a place of edible education, a home to many, a farm that smells as it should, so of earth, sweat and damn hard labour, a historic winery, a place where Sicilian traditions are protected with fierce pride, it is both elegant and as comfortable as slippers, it is quite simply wonderful.

I can’t think of anywhere better to hold a food writing and food blogging workshop with my friend and fellow food writer Luisa Weiss ,and the inimitable owner of the school Fabrizia Lanza. For five days, immersed in life at Casa Vecchie, we will immerse ourselves in the language of food. There will be discussions, readings, lessons, advice and time to write. We will be cooking with Fabrizia and Giovanna, exploring, visiting Filippo the man who makes ricotta, and Agrigento’s ancient “Valley of the Temples” where we will write and picnic under the blossoming citrus groves. We are going to eat and drink and make merry until late each night. Of course there is no pressure to get up too early – this is a holiday after all –  but you will I promise, so you can see the sunrise over the valley and then take your coffee or tea into the garden, a haze of beauty, before you have breakfast.

I am now – in Rome on a Saturday morning in Feb – thinking about breakfast at the large square table at the end of the kitchen, the lip staining mulberry jam, the freshly made bread, yogurt and cake. I am thinking about flying to Palermo in June, meeting you all and taking our first hot gulps of Sicilian air before we drive, through breathtaking sicilian country side, to the school. I am imagining how you will feel when you first see Case Vecchie crested on the hill, when you walk through the blue gates into the cobbled courtyard, when you take the first sip of wine and taste of panelle at dusk, when you first bend down to smell the tangle of wild fennel and mint. It is going to be a good week.

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 The Language of Food.

Before the course, participants will receive six pieces of writing that we will be discussing, each one highlighting a various aspect of food writing. Three pieces have Sicilian roots—Gabrielle Hamilton’s piece about coming to Sicily to learn about wine, an excerpt from On Persephone’s Island by Mary Taylor – Simeti, and a selection by Simonetta Agnello Hornby—while the final three writers (MK Fisher, Molly Wizenberg, and Laurie Colwin) have their roots in other places.

The itinerary

Day 1: Monday, June 15
Arrive in late afternoon or early evening, for  a welcome dinner and introductory discussion over Sicilian aperitifs at Case Vecchie.

Day 2: Tuesday, June 16
Morning writing lesson followed by lunch at Case Vecchie

In the afternoon we will visit local shepherd and cheesemaker Filippo Privitera, where we will watch traditional ricotta production and sample both freshly produced cheeses and the family’s aged cheeses.

Cook together for dinner at Case Vecchie. • Post-dinner gathering and reading.

Day 3: Wednesday, June 17
A morning trip to Agrigento’s ancient “Valley of the Temples” where we will write and picnic under the blossoming citrus groves.

Afternoon writing lesson and free time for writing, resting, or exploring around Case Vecchie, followed by cooking lesson and dinner.

Day 4: Thursday, June 18
Morning writing lesson and communal lunch at Case Vecchie.

Afternoon free time for resting, writing, and exploring the vineyards.

Evening visit to the Case Grandi winery for a tasting workshop, where we will sample a variety of Tasca d’Almerita wines and learn a little about the language of wine. Dinner at Case Grandi.

Day 5: Friday, June 19
Morning writing lesson and communal lunch at Case Vecchie.

That afternoon, we’ll drive to the beautiful hillside village of Polizzi Generosa, with a chance to write in the scenic piazza, sample the local specialties, and visit one of the most ancient pottery producers in the area, before returning through the twilight hills for a farewell dinner at Case Vecchie, followed by a chance to share our work and reflect on the week.

Day 6: Saturday, June 20
• Departure after breakfast.

But we hope the conversation from our special writing community will continue through online discussion and continued feedback loops!

The cost

All-inclusive: 2,500 euros per person for single-occupancy, 2,300 euros per person for double occupancy.

Now of course it is in my interests to convince you to come, and I know it is a big commitment (that said rates of exchange are in our favour and flights too) but it is going to be ace I promise. The details are on The Anna Tanza Lanza web site, you can read my post about Sicily, also Melissa’s and Bea’s with her stunning pictures. If you would like to e-mail to ask me anything about the week, pls do.

And because I don’t want to write a post without a recipe, here is one from Fabrizia’s book, for lemon knot biscuits, which are just delicious – R

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Lemon knot biscuits with lemon glaze - Taralli

  • 2 cups / 250 g all purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup 100 g granulated sugar
  • 100 g lard or butter, diced
  • 1 heaped teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 2 unwaxed lemons
  • a pinch of salt
  • 1 large egg
  • 125 ml lukewarm milk
  • 1.5 cups /200 g icing sugar

Sift the flour into a large bowl.  Add the diced lard or butter and using your fingertips rub it into the flour until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add the granulated sugar, cream of tartar, zest of both lemons and salt. In a small bowl beat together the egg and the lukewarm milk and then add them, bit by bit, to the flour mixture until the mixture comes together into a soft dough. Knead the dough vigorously until it is soft and smoothish but just a little bit tacky (but not sticky).

Preheat the oven to 350° /180F. Prepare two baking trays lined with baking parchment.

Working on a lightly floured board, pull away lumps of dough and roll them into 1/2 inch thick rope and then cut into 5 inch lengths . Shape each length into a looped knot and transfer to the baking tray. Bake the biscuits until they are golden brown which will take about 20 mins,

Make a glaze by adding lemon juice slowly to the icing sugar until you have a consistency thick enough to coat but not clot. Dip the top of each biscuit in the glaze and then transfer to a wire rack to cool.

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on washing and lentils

This article was originally written for Guardian Cook and published on Friday 24th October 2014.

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When I first moved to Rome nearly 10 years ago I lived in a third floor flat above a bread-shop and shared a courtyard with a trattoria. After a month or so, the smell of baking bread and the clatter of plates and pans had become the everyday soundtrack to my life.

Similarly familiar was the sight of laundry shunting past my window on lines strung across the communal courtyard – eeck, eeck, eeck – as they ran through rusty pullies. My neighbours at the time were two elderly sisters who’d lived all their lives in the building and had laundry hanging down to an art. The sequence began at about 7am when rugs were hung, thwacked and reeled back in. Cloths, clothes and sheets followed and, once a month, I was reminded that I’d never washed a seat cover in my life, as a set of them shuddered, like a surrealist photo, into the frame. I’m sure the sisters noticed my neglect. They certainly noticed I never polished my front door, because when I did, they said ‘Brava, finalmente’.

Washing done, the sisters would set about the daily task of making lunch and the smell of pancetta in a hot pan and greens or beans (Romans eat a lot of greens and beans) rolling around in boiling water would meet those swirling up from the trattoria below. In my own kitchen, door open onto the courtyard – an enthusiastic cliché – I did my best to join in.

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Ten years on, I no longer live in that building. I am close-by though and still visit the bread-shop on the first floor, friends on the second and the sisters on the third, usually with my 3 –year-old half-Roman son. Inevitably we pause on one of the narrow balconies above the communal courtyard; Luca to kick the railings, me hoping to catch a nostalgic sound or smell. Places and habits change: it has been a while since we ate at the trattoria whose kitchen windows open onto the communal courtyard. However I still feel affection for a place that provided the background clatter to my kitchen life for six years, the place in which I ate many traditional Roman dishes for the first time: carbonara, amatriciana, oxtail stew, braised artichokes and bitter greens were all eaten here, and then later, the minestre: thick, pulse-based soup-stews reinforced with pasta. I say later, because I noticed and ignored all of these dishes – now my staples – on plasticized menus and daily specials boards (which I thought ironic, as they sounded anything but) for quite some time. Too dense, too beige, I’d think before ordering the pasta with clams.

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I wish I could say I came round to the satisfying pleasure of minestre by myself, but I didn’t. It was my partner Vincenzo, who, like many Italians I know, is happily devoted to these unassuming dishes. He ordered, I tasted. My conversion was slow but sure; a taste of rosemary scented chickpea soup with ribbons of tagliatelle, another of fresh borlotti blushing with fresh tomatoes and quills of pasta, a spoonful, then two, of braised lentils, plainly good, dotted with tiny tubes of pasta called ditalini or little thimbles.

The first minestra I made at home was the beige-sounding but reliably delicious pasta and potatoes, finished with a blizzard of grated pecorino cheese. The next was pasta and lentils, for which I asked and received a disproportionate amount of advice, ranging from scant and impressionistic, to opinionated and precise instruction. I tried and tested until I found way that I liked, that worked for me and suited how I like to eat.

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True to Roman traditions, the way I like to eat these days is mostly simple, unfussy, nutritious food that tastes good. I value good value too. I also enjoy not cooking as much as I do cooking, so the prospect of a pan of food that provides two or three meals is very appealing. This is why a big pan of lentils, braised with a soffritto of extra virgin olive oil, onion, carrot, celery and garlic and is one of my most trusted things to make, half to be served with some pasta or rice, the rest the following day (when the lentils are even tastier) with grilled or pan-fried sausage or a frilly edged fried egg.

These days, with no shared courtyard and no sisters, there is no-one to notice the (in)frequency of my laundry. No sisters either to notice my annual door polishing or that I’ve mastered my weekly minestra. However, I am pretty sure that if they knew, they would approve.

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A pan of braised lentils to serve two ways

8 Servings

  • 1 medium onion
  • 1 medium carrot
  • 1 rib of celery
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 500 g small brown lentils – Castelluccio lentils from Umbria are particularly good
  • 2 bay leaves
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper

To serve –  250 – 400 g rice or pasta for the first meal then 4 pork sausage or 4 large free range eggs for the second meal.

Finely chop the onion, carrot, celery, and garlic. Cover the base of a large heavy-based frying or sauté pan with olive oil over a medium-low heat, add the chopped vegetables and cook very gently until they are soft, but not coloured.

Pick over the lentils to check for gritty bits, then rinse thoroughly and add them to the pan along with the bay leaves, stirring for a minute or two until each lentil glistens with oil. Cover with 1.2 litres of water (the water should come about 2.5 cm above the lentils), bring to the boil and reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook the lentils, stirring occasionally, adding a little more water if they seem a little dry, until they are tender but not squidgy – they should still have lentil integrity. Ideally not all the water should be absorbed and the lentils should be just a little soupy. This will take 25–50 minutes, depending on the lentils. Season them generously with salt and pepper.

First meal

Gently re-heat half the lentils. Cook the pasta or rice in plenty of well-salted, fast boiling water until al dente and then drain reserving some of the cooking water. Mix the lentils and the cooked pasta or rice, adding a little of the reserved water to loosen the consistency if you think fit. Serve with more extra virgin olive oil poured over the top and a bowl of grated parmesan cheese for those who wish.

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Second meal.

Gently re-heat the rest of the lentils, adding a handful of finely chopped parsley and a couple of spoonfuls of olive oil for shine. Divide between four bowls and top each one with a grilled or pan-fried sausage or fried egg.

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There is also an accompanying short film to this article made by Micheal Thomas Jones, Marissa Keating and Mina Holland you can see here.

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sip and sauce

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A story that isn’t about sauce.

Last night a new friend invited me over for dinner. She had also invited another mutual friend who now lives in the US so I’d taken a bottle of sparkling wine chosen from the scant selection in the fridge in my local wine shop before grabbing a taxi. Not a bottle I would have usually picked, but I hoped it would be good. My friend’s husband opened the bottle as we stood on their balcony on a sultry and still July evening in Rome, he poured, we raised glasses and drank.

The wine was odd, not terrible, just odd, sort of sour! Or was it the fact I had cleaned my teeth not long before? I took another sip hoping it would taste different, which it didn’t. I tried combining it with a toasted almond, then tasted again.

As I said, they are new friends with whom I feel comfortable, but not enough to say ‘I think this is a bit odd, lets ditch it and open another bottle.‘ I took another sip, hoping my persistence would improve things (it didn’t) by which point it felt too late to comment as everyone else was drinking so to do so would question their taste buds. Or where they merely drinking politely thinking this is odd and wondering why the person who brought the bottle isn’t saying anything? Then again maybe it was the particularly minty toothpaste?  In short, in the shortest time I completed a half marathon of anxiety and ate almost the entire bowl of almonds.

We sat down and my anxiety and the taste of the sparking wine ebbed away with each sip of nice red in easy company. The smell of dinner was as enticing as you’d hope, ‘It’s beef braised in red wine’ said my friend. ‘Made with meat from a new butcher’ so she hoped it was good. It was, especially with the pilaf of rice and mushroom and slender green beans. My friend however, picking up the anxiety baton I had dropped, was disappointed. ‘It was tough‘. Everyone was too busy eating to reply. ‘It’s tough‘ she said again, this time posed as a question. ‘It was firm’ was the answer.’ ‘But extremely tasty.‘ Plates were handed back for seconds but even that didn’t convince the cook who was quiet until eventually conversation and wine drew her back in. Salad, pudding, coffee, amaro and more conversation followed. It was a good night and I left late liking my new friend even more than when I’d arrived.

This morning as I waited for the coffee to gurgle out of the moka, my phone beeped with a message asking me about the name of book I’d mentioned and apologizing for the beef again. First I drank my coffee, each sip chipping away at my not unpleasant amaro head, then I wrote back to tell her the beef was firm but damn tasty and that the name of the book – a favorite – was Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking.

Possibly the ideal book given the circumstances and our short relay of anxiety the night before. ‘Home Cooking’ is the antidote to most food writing malarkey that tells us things should be perfect and effortless and the hostesses unflappable, a funny and wise collection of kitchen essays that touch on the human, therefore imperfect, nature of home cooking. It is a book about ordinary delights, but also fiascos and disappointments; ingredients that don’t behave, dishes that don’t turn out as they should, dinners we cook for friends that we wish were different, the sour and the tough if you like, which others might not have thought was sour or tough at all.

As I tapped the old grounds out of the coffee pot into the bin and watched most of them fall on the floor, refilled the pot and put it back on the stove, I had another wave of anxiety about the wine (I hold onto anxiety in the way some people hold grudges: I still cringe about the homemade humus with a hair in it I took to a dinner in about 1998). There was only one thing for it; have a gin and tonic! Unfortunateley it was nine in the morning! So I did the next best thing, I planted my son in front of a video, poured my third coffee and sat on the sofa to read Laurie Colwin.

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The sauce that has nothing to do with the story.

A summer sauce for when good flavoursome tomatoes are plentiful and cheap (ish). Peeling the tomatoes might sound a bit of a faff, which it is, but only for a few minutes and it is undoubtedly worth it. Having peeled and roughly chopped the tomatoes you cook them in lots of garlic scented olive oil until any extra water has evaporated away and you have rich, sauce that clings insistently to the pasta and your child’s face. It is one of my hands down favorite things to eat.

Fresh tomato sauce for with spaghetti or penne

Peel a kilogram of flavoursome tomatoes by plunging them into boiling water for a minute, then cold water for another 30 seconds at which point the skins should slip away easily. Cut away any hard-core or hard white flesh, then chop the tomatoes into rough pieces, ideally over a plate to catch any juices.

In a large frying pan, warm 5 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil and a peeled squashed garlic clove over a modest flame until the smell of the garlic rises up from the pan (do not let it burn). Add the tomatoes and a big pinch of salt and stir. Let sauce simmer for 10 – 20 minutes or until – with some of the water evaporated – the sauce is thick and saucy. Add a few torn basil leaves, stir and then remove from the heat.

For four people, cook 500 g of spaghetti in fast boiling well-salted water until al dente, drain and mix with the sauce (which you can warm gently if a significant amount of time has passed since you made it) and serve immediately.

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I am, as many of you know, writing a book, which is why I am here so intermittently. We are about to start the editing process and work on design, by October I should be back each week. Meanwhile I am posting on Instagram and continue to miss you more than you miss me. Rachel.

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on bread

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My Granny Alice, my mum’s mum and my second namesake, loved bread and butter. She was also particular about how to unwrap and then re-wrap the foil or waxed paper, after all butter wrappers are not just for keeping butter safe, later they can be used for smearing the last bit of butter on a tin or pie plate. Alice would have tutted at the mess captured in the picture above. Actually I want to tut at the mess I made of the pack above. I even considered changing the picture, until I realized it was a good place to start because it is precisely this sort of banal, badly opened detail that can stir a thought or memory that then tumbles like a domino into more memories and suddenly bread and butter is so much more than just bread and butter.

After this picture was taken I called my Dad to ask something for my book and the conversation turned to bread and butter, of which my dad is very fond too. I told him the wrapper had made me think of Alice and he told me that when he was a boy there was a plate of buttered bread on the table at every meal. He also reminded me that on my Mum’s side of the family Alice’s sister May used to butter the end of the loaf before cutting the slice. As he spoke, a memory emerged of Auntie May, short and strong, in the kitchen in my Granny’s pub, buttering the end of a white loaf. This memory of May then rolled into one of uncle Colin in about 1980, so when he was 23, more or less the age he remains in our minds as he died not long after. In this memory Colin, still in his dressing gown his fringe hiding his eyes, strolls as if to music into the kitchen in search of strong tea and a bacon sandwich. There is Alice in the kitchen too, frying back bacon to be sandwiched between slices of bread, every now and then casting exasperated but adoring glances at her youngest son. While the bacon fries, Colin lights a cigarette and May chases him out of the kitchen with a pair of kitchen tongs, which we, his young nieces and nephew think hilarious. Colin always made us laugh. Now the memories are spreading like soft butter on bread, of Colin and the unbearably sad things to come, so I think about the bacon butties eaten in the kitchen of the Gardeners Arms pub and the taste of the bread that was put in the empty pan to soak up the bacon fat. I think about Colin putting another coin in the pub Juke box, Just take those old records off the shelf I sit and listen to ‘em by m’self. Fat memories.

Now in Rome I’m playing a game of association Bread and butter, bread and flora margarine, bread and bacon fat, bread and drippingBread and olive oil‘ Vincenzo says with the knowing glint in his eye that drives me mad. ‘Yes yes, of course bread and olive oil is delicious but I am thinking about EnglandNow, where was I? Bread and bacon fat, bread and dripping from the sunday roast, bread and bone marrow’. Bone marrow, the creamy heart of  the bone that has been roasted just long enough to melt the marrow into a soft, opaque cream to be squashed on toast.

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I have hazy memories of sucking or poking bone marrow from the bones of a sunday Roast, but a clear one of the first time I ate bone marrow at a restaurant called St John in London. I was taken by my friend Jo, an architect, to the cavernous, whitewashed place on St John street that seemed to be full of other architects. The restaurant, I was told, served a kind of British cooking and lots of offal which was disconcerting then. We drank in the bar and then ordered from the bar menu chalked up on the blackboard. I would order from that menu countless times over following years and so my memories are a muddle of many visits repaid with brilliantly simple and delicious things to eat; Welsh rarebit, boiled eggs and celery salt, radishes, butter and salt, skate, chicory and anchovy, rabbit terrine, smoked eel with watercress and horseradish, crispy pigs tails and sorrel salad, soft roes on toast, cured beef with celeriac. A muddle except for that first dish on that first visit of Roast bone marrow with parsley salad.

Bone marrow isn’t, as I used to think, all fat – not that this presented me with a problem – it is also protein and a veritable collection of vitamins and good things. It is also delicious, quivering and rich and melts into the warm toast luxuriously. Like butter and olive oil, bone marrow on toast cries out for salt, ideally tiny shards of it, that catch the sides of your mouth. The pinch of parsley, caper and shallot salad: grassy, salty and sharp is a welcome addition contrasting with the marrow and bread. Simple, purposeful and delicious food. Food that I wouldn’t have remembered and then made were it not for a piece of bread and butter and a badly opened pack.

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Roasted bone marrow on toast with parsley salad

adapted from Fergus Henderson’s Nose to Tail eating.

Serves 2.

Roast six 3″pieces pieces of middle veal marrowbone on a baking tray in a hot oven until the marrow is soft and jelly -like but not melted away – this should take about 20 minutes. Meanwhile make a salad of some finely chopped flat-leaved parsley, a teaspoon of fine capers, 1 finely chopped shallot, lemon juice and olive oil.

Serve each person 3 bones, a pile of salad, a little pile of coarse salt and two pieces of sourdough toast. Using the other end of a teaspoon scoop the bone marrow onto the toast, crunch over a little salt, pinch over some salad and eat and repeat.

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shove and dish

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Some years back I smashed a pile of bowls. The bowls, seven or eight of them, were stacked biggest to smallest on a shelf in my kitchen in London until, one day, I decided to lean a large plate against the wall behind the pleasing pile. As I turned away I sensed a movement and spun back just in time to watch the plate, like a coin in a shove ha’penny machine, slide down and push the entire pile onto the floor. The bowls, mostly terracotta yogurt pots brought back wrapped in damp beach towels from trips to Greece and two bowls from Italy bought from Camden market, remained more or less in a pile only smashed into fierce segments. I remember staring at the pile, like a crude un-grouted mosaic, and then up at the smooth shelf wondering why on earth I balanced the plate before picking up the pieces and wrapping them in newspaper. It was only later that day, when I noticed the large plate that had slipped sitting flat on the shelf nonplussed, that I cried.

On Sunday I bought three dishes from Porta Portese market here in Rome; wide creamy-white bowls from Puglia with what look like tiny blue paw prints around the thick lip. I thought I’d struck a good deal, haggling him down from the initial 30 for the largest plate and 40 for the two smaller ones to 50 for the lot. Vincenzo took one look at the chipped edges and told me I’d been robbed and that never mind the trio, I could buy an entire orchestra of plates and dishes for the same price in Puglia. This didn’t dampen my clunking satisfaction at the three dishes, two of which were just like the bowls I’d lost, now wrapped in newspaper and in a blue plastic bag suspended across the push chair handles. Luca, usurped from his chair, chose a disturbingly realistic plastic crocodile from a bric-a-brac stall which he then swung at passers-by all the way home.

The bowls, the largest of which is almost as big as the kitchen table, have dominated all week. They have sat, one on top of the other just so, then in turn been filled with lemons with leaves, the first apricot-coloured nespole, oranges, strawberries (the strawberries have been superb this year), beans with tuna and hard-boiled eggs and green salad. Then on Thursday night, wanting to do little more that open a bottle of wine and boil something, I filled one of the bowls with fine green beans, ripped basil, loads of freshly grated parmesan cheese and olive oil for a supper so tasty I made it again for lunch the next day.

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The key is good beans. I used fine fagiolini al burro, crackingly good, bright green things that cook, as their name suggests, into almost butter like tenderness. Key too, is putting the olive oil, grated cheese and ripped basil in the bowl first so the warmth and weight of the just cooked beans release the rich, spicy scent of the basil and encourage the cheese to mingle with the olive oil creating a granular dressing, a lazy pesto really, which you then bring up and over the beans. You finish off with more cheese, grated on the finest holes so it is dusty rather than stringy. If you are generous enough with the cheese and olive oil this is a much more substantial dish than you’d imagine and far too good to be sidelined. On Thursday we had it with bread, more parmesan in craggy chunks and lots of wine. On Friday we had it with burrata, which is best described as a bag or purse fashioned from mozzarella filled with rags of mozzarella in cream.

The bowls are now in a pile, on a low shelf, with nothing balanced behind.

Green beans with basil, olive oil and parmesan

serve 2

  • 5oo g fine green beans
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • freshly grated parmesan
  • a handful of fresh basil leaves

Top and tail the beans and then boil them in lots of fast-boiling, well-salted water until they are tender but still with a little resistance.

While the beans are cooking pour a some olive oil into a shallow dish, grate over lots of parmesan and add the basil leaves ripped into smallish pieces.

Once the beans are ready drain them, wait a minute and then tip them into the bowl and toss everything together. Grate some more parmesan over the top and serve immediately.

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do choke

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

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

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

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

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Artichoke and parmesan salad

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

serves 2

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

Prepare a bowl of cold water acidulated with the juice of a lemon. Trim the artichokes by first pulling away the darker tougher leaves, pulling them down towards the base of the artichoke and snapping them off just before the base. Then using a sharp knife, pare away the tough green flesh from the base of the artichokes and the stem. Lop about an inch off the top of the central cone, As you work, rub the cut edges of the artichoke with the squeezed half of the lemon. Working quickly, cut the chokes first into quarters (and pull away away hairy choke) then thin slices and put them in the acidulated water.

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

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

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