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
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.
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
I first ate pesto in St Albans. Years later, I would eat it in a rather sleek port side trattoria in Genova, the real deal, pesto alla Genovese, a bright green paste binding trofie pasta – a short twisted shape with tapered ends – with just a little collapsing potato and fine green beans. But the first time had been when I was 14, in a town five miles nearer to London than my town, called St Albans. It was the first real date with the boy who was to become my second real boyfriend, who would later, if not break, offhandedly hurt my heart (the git.)
I can still remember him, wearing blue acrylic Adidas shorts, scraping the contents of a small jar into flat spaghetti called Lin-gwee-knee. The stuff coming out of the jar was darkish green and smelt like dried herbs, cheese and mothballs. It wasn’t entirely unpleasant. ‘It’s pesto‘ he said. I was given the job of mixing the pasta and pesto, which clumped into a large ball. It would be another 18 years until I learned the secret of pasta cooking water. Undeterred, we untangled the ball in two, then ate our supper listening to David Sandbourne’s 1980’s smooth sax. Even with the mustiness, I thought it was one of the best things I had ever eaten. As it got dark, I balanced on the cogs on the back of his BMX and he rode me up a very steep hill to the train station, a feat I read like tea leaves. It was meant to be. When we kissed goodbye, he tasted of pesto.
Pesto comes from the Italian verb pestare that means to pound or crush, a job best done with a pestle in a mortar. The most famous of the pesto family, pesto alla Genovese, a distant manufactured cousin of that which I ate all those years ago in St Albans was – and occasionally still is – made with a bulbous wooden pestle, in a heavyweight marble mortar. Watching someone with experience and skill make pesto with a pestle is as wonderful as the final dish. To start, the garlic (with a pinch of salt) is pounded and crushed against the sides of the mortar. Once the garlic is disciplined, the basil leaves are added – ideally the small and tender leaved Genevese variety – and pounded into a bright green paste, at which point the pine nuts are added and pounded too. To finish mix of grated pecorino and parmesan cheese is then added bit by bit, each addition helped with a little extra virgin olive oil until the desired consistency is achieved. I was once told pesto should be corposo(have body) , that it shouldn’t correre (run) like a naughty child (mine), but sit like an obedient one (not my child). Later the addition of pasta cooking water will help loosen the pesto into an accommodating pasta-clinging consistency. I should stop here though, there are experts and consortia of pesto alla Genovese. I am simply an enthusiastic fan.
I have made pesto alla Genovese with a pestle and mortar, or rather Vincenzo and I did together, me instructing, him pounding. It was a laborious task , but a satisfying one and the pesto was fragrant with real texture. Laborious though. Then I broke my mortar*. These days I make it less laboriously and much faster with my only electric kitchen tool – a faithful immersion blender. Like so many Italian recipes, pesto alle Genovese is one that needs no innovation (garlic, basil, pine-nuts, grated hard cheese and extra virgin olive oil are a brilliant combination) but demands your imprint as you make it your own by making it again and again finding best method and proportions. I put the garlic, basil and pine nuts and just a dash of olive oil in a tin bowl and then with short pressing pulses reduce everything to a paste. I stir in the grated cheese and olive oil bit by bit, with a spoon, as opposed to more pulses, as I prefer the texture that gives. This is known as green sauce in our house and it is an absolute favorite. I make it most weeks. If we don’t have the ingredients, well, that brings us to other sorts of pesto.
Pesto, a pounded sauce, can of course be made with many things. Pesto alla Genovese is a good template, establishing the garlic, herb (or leaf), nut, cheese, extra virgin olive oil formula which works so well. Once you have got the hang of this basic recipe, and found your preferred way of making it, be that pestle and mortar, immersion blender, food processor or magimix, you can improvise around this theme. Think of it as a set of pesto dance steps, that once mastered can be set to any ingredient tune. I make parsley, walnut and parmesan pesto, sage, almond and pecorino pesto, mint,almond and salted ricotta pesto (to which I often add some finely chopped tomato making it rather like pesto alla Trapanese), rocket, pine nut and parmesan pesto, pea shoot, mint and almond pesto (to which I add peas and sometimes a blob of ricotta or thick greek yogurt).
As for qualities, an initial template is useful too, until you get the hang of things and pesto becomes a pretty relaxed affair for the eye and not the scales, that comfortable q.b. My original template of quantities for pesto alla Genovese came from the same person who so expertly pounded the ingredients by hand: 2 small cloves of garlic, a pinch of salt, 50 g basil leaves, 20 g pine nuts, 75 ml extra virgin olive oil, 30 g pecorino cheese, 70 g parmesan cheese. These days I have a pretty good sense of these quantities and I keep them in mind whatever pesto I am making.
The pot of pesto pictured in this post was a make-do pot. The the last two cloves of garlic (note to self – buy more garlic), basil and two neglected stalks of mint that might otherwise have just been binned, the only nuts I had in the house (almonds), parmesan alone as I had no pecorino. I feel reassured by a pot of pesto in the fridge so if I can, I try to make extra. It need to be covered with a thin layer of olive oil to stop discoloring. Pesto also freezes well if you are lucky enough to have a lot of something along with the wherewithal to stock pile.
So how to serve it. Pasta is our preferred way to eat all incarnations of pesto. I was taught to put a tablespoon per person of pesto in a warm bowl while the pasta is cooking then scoop 3 – 4 tablespoons of starchy pasta cooking water into the bowl to loosen the pesto into a creamy sauce. You then lift the pasta onto the pesto and toss, adding a little more water to loosen things further: the pasta should be silky and willing to curl around a fork, not clump together. I like pasta with pesto just so. I also like vegetables in the mix. With this basil, mint and almond I added some fine green beans and to the pan along with the pasta.
Pesto – despite what Vincenzo might tell you – is not just for pasta though. I used most of the rest of the jar as a dressing for warm boiled potatoes and green beans, and the last spoonful in a sandwich with some ricotta and mizuna. On other occasions I have used pesto at the bottom of a goats cheese tart thing, as a dressing for grated courgette salad, stirred into warm lentils. However you choose to use your potful, keep in mind that David Sanborn makes for a good and naff supper soundtrack and a bike ride (balancing and hills optional) is nice after.
basil, mint and almond pesto
makes that jar-full in the picture.
Wash and dry the basil and mint leaves and put them in a deep bowl. Add 1 or 2 peeled cloves of garlic (you know best), a pinch of salt, and the peeled almonds. Pulse – cautiously to start – with a stick blender until you have a rough paste. Add cheese bit by bit, with each addition adding some of the olive oil, stiring with spoon or pulsing with blender until you have a consistency and taste you like. This could of course be done with a pestle and mortar, or food processor.
Keep in a jar with layer of olive oil floating on the top to stop it discoloring.
*I am now the happy owner of new pestle and mortar, a gift from my wonderful publisher Elizabeth on publication of the book. Did I mention I wrote a book? I will be pounding pesto with a pestle just as soon as I get back in my Roman kitchen. I am – despite this misleading post that has taken me a month to finish – still in England, which is lovely, but I miss Rome and my kitchen and (slightly blocked) kitchen sink and all that represents. Thank you again and again for all your support and cheering along, for buying the book and then sending me such generous messages, for cooking and then sending me pictures, really it fills me with joy. R
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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
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.
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.
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!
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
Lemon knot biscuits with lemon glaze – Taralli
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.
This article was originally written for Guardian Cook and published on Friday 24th October 2014.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A pan of braised lentils to serve two ways
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.