This week’s Kitchen Sink Tales in the Guardian are about a celery, and soup, a big soup. If you would like to read them, here is the link. – R
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A very ripe kaki (persimmon) feels a bit like a little balloon filled with water. Cup one in your hands – they are often disconcertingly heavy – and then move it from side to side: you can almost feel the soft pulp sloshing inside the tawny skin, which has the sort of translucent glow that in many fruits would suggest the wrong side of ripe. The dry, crumpled calyx will tug away easily and then it takes almost nothing to break the skin. A knife would be excessive. A spoon is best. It isn’t quite the explosion of a water balloon, but almost: open the fruit over a plate so the flood of sweet, pulpy, almost jelly like flesh is contained.
Until I came to Italy, I had only ever eaten Sharon persimmons, called Sharon fruit in the UK, a variety developed in the Sharon valley in Israel to be less astringent when hard, meaning they can be eaten with pleasure and crunch like an apple. As a child I quite liked Sharon fruit, it was a fun fruit, as opposed to a boring fruit, both exotic, with its shiny, yellow-orange skin, and familiar to a 12-year-old who watched with dedication the soap opera Eastenders and England’s most famous landlord’s daughter, Sharon Watts. It was the equivalent, maybe, of a fruit today being developed in the Kim valley.
Various less astringent varieties are cultivated in Italy, usually called kaki vaniglia, in Rome at least. Just to confuse things they are also called loti vaniglia, kaki mela and cachi fuya. Simply asking for kaki duri (hard) generally works. The hard vaniglia variety will eventually ripen too, the skin darkening from yellow to tawny red, the pulp softening into plummyness. However after extremely scientific research on my windowsill and in a paper bag, I can confirm they never quite reach the ripeness, nor the deep flavor, of varieties whose astringent tannins have been conquered by extraordinary sweetness. Hard varieties, I think, are best just so, out of hand, or sliced for a salad, where lemon and salt bring out best in them.
It is the kaki that begin life as a hard, mouth-furring ball, and then ripen into little balloons that really interest me at this time of year. The sort that make plenty of people shudder at the mere wobbly thought of them, The wild ancestors of Kaki grew in China and Japan, where full-fruiting trees have flourished, and had a deep symbolic significance, for over two thousand years. In her wonderful Fruit Book, Jane Grigson notes that in Japan the poet Issa uses Kaki to symbolize maternal self-sacrifice – Wild persimmons, the mother eating, the bitter part. I have seen pictures of trees in Japan, leafless, hung with deep red fruit that looks like glowing baubles on an avant garde Christmas tree. I have never been to Japan, but I have been to Abruzzo in November, a particularly damp and grey one to research a piece on olive oil. We had to stop the car several time to look at the strange Autumn beauty through the mist, trees with skeleton branches arching under the weight of the fruit, the ground below a ripe carnage. The owner of one tree almost begged us to take some off her hands, which we did, the fruits supple and extremely soft, spilling all over our greed in the car. Back home I thought about jam, and until I realized that ripe kaki are in fact already jam, the pulp so sticky and sweet that you need only nick a corner and a jam tumbles onto your toast. Or into your cake batter.
As you may remember, I only really make one cake, of infinite variations. It is Ruth’s olive oil and yogurt pot cake – the one in which you use a pot of yogurt, and then the pot to measure the rest of the ingredients – which has now evolved into a ricotta and olive oil cake you can add anything to, the recipe of which is in my book. It will probably be in my next book too. I make a version of this cake most weeks, enjoying the fact I can fling it all together in about two minutes. This week, after dislodging the mixing bowl from the infernal pile rammed under the butcher block and thinking bollocks, I noticed a kaki and thought aha. So ripe was the fruit, pureeing it would have been superfluous, I simply squeezed and it slipped, like a jellyfish, into the bowl. I then fished out bits of skin, which wasn’t really necessary. The batter streaked with tawny ripples looked gorgeous. In the oven it went.
I have made the cake again since, weighing the kaki, which was just short of 300g. The weight and consistency of the ripe fruit means the cake doesn’t rise as it normally does, in fact when I first pulled the first one from the oven my heart sank like cake before me. It was heavy. The next morning I cut a slice, the crust deep golden brown, the crumb ruddy-yellow with tawny flecks. It was dense, damp and plainly delicious. This cake reminds me a little of Claudia Roden’s wonderfully moist whole orange cake in that it is better after a nights rest and keeps a good few days, that it happily moonlights as a pudding if given enough cold cream. I think this cake might be our Christmas dessert. That, or simply a ripe kaki, with cream poured in the top, and nothing else.
Persimmon (kaki), olive oil, lemon and ricotta ring cake
There are a rather confusing number of varieties of kaki/persimmon grown all over the world. As you can imagine, the varieties that need to be matured until very soft are ripened in various ways, some more preferable than others, and transport can be difficult. It might be worth doing a bit of research. I have reduced the sugar slightly from my book recipe as the kaki provides plenty.
- 250 g plain flour
- a bag of Italian leivito or two teaspoons of baking powder
- 150 g sugar
- 250 g ricotta or whole milk yogurt
- 200 ml extra virgin olive oil
- 3 eggs
- the zest of a large unwaxed lemon
- a very ripe, very soft (Hachiya) kaki/ persimmon, approx 300 g.
Pre-heat the oven to 180°
In a large bowl, mix together the dry ingredients – flour, baking power and sugar. Add the ricotta/yogurt, olive oil and eggs one by one and mix vigorously until you have a smooth batter. Grate the lemon zest directly over the mixture and then scoop the persimmon flesh from the skin and mix again.
Pour the mixture into an oiled and floured ring tin and bake on a rack in the middle of the oven for 40 – 50 minutes or until the cake is golden brown and a skewer or piece of spaghetti comes out clean. Let the cake cool in the tin and then invert onto a plate.
Hello, and here is the link to this week’s Kitchen Sink Tales. If I get my act together, there will be more here later this week. – R
It is nice to be here. I am thrilled to be writing for The Guardian, the newspaper I have read all my reading life. But writing here feels like coming home after a long day somewhere unfamiliar: walking in the door (the day the cleaner has been), yanking off shoes and the short jumper you have been tugging at all day, then pulling on the most comfortable thing you own. I have you all to thank for this.
As promised, I am here to link to the column, Kitchen Sink Tales installment three. I also want to elaborate a recipe I mention, zucca alla scapece, marinated pumpkin. It is a recipe from Flavio, the owner of a trattoria called Flavio al Velavevodetto, which means something along the lines of Flavio of I told you so, a name retort to someone who thought Flavio would never open a trattoria. Which he did, a good one, burrowed into the base of Monte dei Cocci, Rome’s extraordinary manmade hill constructed in antiquity entirely from bits of broken terra-cotta amphorae, or cocci, that once contained olive oil. The Monte is moments from our flat, so the trattoria one of our locals. I called by a week or so ago, a mild October morning, and sat at an outside table looking up at the Monte covered with the grass and shrubs of centuries until Flavio arrived, and – never at a loss for words – told me about his morning (a blood test) and recipe.
Alla scapece comes from the spanish word escabeche, which means sousing something, usually vegetables or fish, in an acidic mixture before serving. In summer Flavio marinates fried coins of courgettes in olive oil, vinegar, garlic, chili and musty and fragrant Roman mint. In autumn, when blazing orange zucca is abundant he treats it similarly for a delicious sweet and sour antipasti. It is even more delicious when sharing a plate with another of Rome’s autumn treasures: puntarelle, chicory cut and crisped in iced water until it looks like Shirley Temple’s hair and then dressed with an opinionated anchovy, lemon and garlic dressing – it is part of the pleasure that the curls misbehave and you have a chin glistening with anchovy olive oil. I also like zucca alla scapece sitting on top of a pile of hot, peppery rocket.
For his Trattoria scapece Flavio deep-fries the zucca in oil. For a home cook, with a small, badly ventilated kitchen, he suggests oven roasting with olive oil, which is something I do often in autumn and winter, for risotto and soup. I am a big fan of cooking up things that provide the basis for two or three meals, so two trays of wrinkly roasted pumpkin it was. Some for risotto, the leftovers of which was rolled into arancini, the rest for scapece.
As with so many such dishes, and me, zucca alla scapece is better after a rest, a whole night even. Just remember to bring it back to room temperature and nudge the chunks in the dressing before you serve, with bread and a glass of wine that can hold its own.
Zucca alla scapece – Roasted sweet and sour pumpkin with garlic, chilli and mint
- 600 g pumpkin or squash, peeled, de-seeded and cut into 15mm wedges.
- olive oil
for the dressing
- a big, fat clove of garlic
- a small dried chilli
- a small fistful of mint (ideally the small-leaved calamint/nepitella)
- 120 ml olive oil
- 1 – 2 generous tablespoons of red wine vinegar (depending on your taste)
Put the wedges of Pumpkin or squash in a baking tray, sprinkle with salt and zigzag over some olive oil. If you like, use your hands to rub the olive oil in. Roast at 200° for 30 – 40 minutes or until the wedges are tender and golden at the edges. Leave in the tin to cool.
Peel and very finely chop the garlic and chill, and tear the mint into little pieces with your fingers. In a small bowl whisk together the olive oil, vinegar, garlic, chili, mint and a pinch of salt. Lay the pumpkin on a lipped plate, cutting larger pieces in two, even three, pour over the dressing and then use two spoons, or your hands to gently turn the wedges until they all glisten. Leave to sit for at least 30 minutes, ideally an hour, turning a couple of times.
Zucca alla scapece is even better the next day, cover with clingfilm and keep in the fridge, but remember to pull it out at least 30 minutes before you want to eat it.
After all that, here is the link for this week’s Kitchen Sink Tales.
Also the link to Flavio al Velavevodetto. If you do decide to go, remember to book, and in the winter ask for a table in the main dining room which is burrowed into the Monte where glass panels allow you to see the astonishing layers of broken pot. Monte di Cocci is closed to the public, but there are tours, which means you can walk, clink by astonishing clink, up and over shards of broken amphorae and then take in mighty views of classical and, equally fascinating, industrial Rome. Katie Parla and Irene Ranaldi both lead excellent tours.
You can now tear me out, from Guardian Cook, each Saturday. I hope you enjoy the recipe enough for it to merit a place pinned to the fridge with a magnet, stuck in a book, or as a book mark. I fully understand though, if you use me to start a fire, wrap a broken glass or simply recycle me. The weekly Column will also be on-line and I will share the link here too. More soon R
Hello. We are in Southeast Sicily in a town called Gela. I have written a piece about this for the FT Weekend magazine, which is beautifully illustrated by Luke Best. If you would like to read it, here is the link. More here soon – R
After seven weeks in England – the longest trip back since I came to Italy – it was good to come home. Even the relentless heat, which clung to our skin as we walked down the plane steps and has refused to let go ever since, hasn’t dented my relief at being back in Testaccio. Relief though, is one thing, settling back another. I have felt a bit like a snow-globe in the hands of a hyper-active toddler, thoughts about time away, work, writing a book, promoting a book, family, home in England which isn’t home anymore, and home in Rome, a city in profound crisis, all swirling around. Swirling which trips into surreal during restless nights in our small, hot flat, the droning urumm urumm urumm of the knackered floor fan offering a soundtrack to my anxious half-sleep. Of course everything with settle, eventually, somethings different, some the same.
If I have felt like a snow-globe, then writing here has felt trying to jump on a moving roundabout as a child. Wanting to, lurching forward, only to watch the handle rush past, Whoosh. The book launch dinner made by some of my favorite cooks in one of my favourite places, I tried to write about that. Whoosh. There was the trip within the trip to Sicily for the food writing course, from which I returned inspired and overwhelmed in equal measure, surely I would write about that? Whoosh. I’d write about cooking with my sister, one of the nicest things about my time in England, hours and hours spent in her kitchen, kids running riot in the garden, the two of us talking and drinking wine and talking as if to make up for lost time (which we were). Whoosh. I’d write a book review or something more sophisticated than a snow-shaker metaphor. Or maybe I wouldn’t, not yet at least. For now, in order to jump on, I will write about lunch.
Turn on the radio. Fill a big pan with water, light hob, plonk pan on the stove. Stop, first move the coffee stand from the hob and burn fingers, and then put the pan on the hob. Pull milled tomatoes from the fridge and wonder where the hell the water under the fridge is coming from. Cut aubergine into cubes, don’t worry about being too precise, no-one is watching and don’t bother salting unless you want to. Fry the aubergine in lots of extra virgin olive oil until tender and golden and sweat steams down the nape of your neck (it is 38° even without the boiling oil). Use a slotted spoon to lift the cubes into kitchen towel. Cooking can be lots of things, today it is a task, but a welcome one. Is the pasta water boiling? Yes, add salt, plenty, stir and throw in the pasta and stir again. Add garlic to the aubergine pan, then the tomatoes and cook until saucy (I like saucy, and find it a better note than specific timings), return aubergine to the pan and cook a minute longer. Add lots of torn basil (inhale deeply) and the drained pasta. Toss properly. Finish each plate with lots of ricotta salata. Simple, generous and richly flavoured: this is the sort of food I like to eat.
I am not going to call this pasta alla norma, a dish typical to Catania in Sicily. It is however very much inspired by it: short pasta mixed with fried aubergine, tomatoes, lots of fresh basil and topped with Ricotta salata. It is important that you use good extra virgin olive oil, and don’t skimp on the quantity, the pleasure is in the taste of properly fried aubergine, rich and plump, softened and sharpened by tomatoes, lifted by the fragrant basil and finished with the soft, salty-sharp ricotta. If you can’t find ricotta, parmesan or pecorino work well too.
It’s good to be back. More soon.
Pasta with aubergine, tomato, basil and salted ricotta.
- 1 large /2 small aubergine (approx 600g)
- extra virgin olive oil.
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled and gently crushed
- 500 g fresh tomatoes, peeled and roughly chopped or passed through mouli or 500 g tinned plum tomatoes roughly chopped
- fresh basil
- salted ricotta, pecorino or parmesan
- 500 g short pasta (Penne, rigatoni, caserecce, mezze maniche all work well)
Cut the spiky cap from the aubergine and then cut into 1cm square cubes. Cover the bottom of a frying pan with 1 cm of olive oil and warm over a medium/high flame. Once the oil is quite hot, add a single layer of aubergine and fry until tender and golden, then remove with a slotted spoon onto kitchen towel. Continue frying the aubergine in batches until it is all done.
You should still have some olive oil in the pan, if not add some more (you want about 4 tablespoons). Once the olive oil has cooled significantly, add the peeled garlic and fry until lightly gold and fragrant – do not let it burn or it will be bitter. Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring often and pressing gently with the back of a wood spoon, until thick and saucy but not dry. Add salt to taste. Add the aubergine to the tomato, cook for another minute or so, then pull from the heat and add a handful of fresh torn basil leaves.
Meanwhile bring a large pan of water to the boil. Once the water is boiling, add salt, stir and then add the pasta and cook until al dente. Drain the pasta and add to the sauce and stir. Divide between plates, top with plenty of grated salted ricotta and serve.
As many of you know, I have been happily contributing to the Guardian Cook Batch Cooking series and the latest one is all about tomato sauce.
I want to bring the warm and generous words about Five Quarters that have been written on personal blogs together in one place, here. Thank you so much Emiko Dan, Evie, Kath, Simon, India Knight, Margaret, Gemma, Molly, and the inimitable and wonderful Gareth Jones who very sadly passed away earlier this month and is missed terribly.
I hope I haven’t forgotten anyone. If I have, please forgive me and send me a link so I can add it – R