Category Archives: vegetables

soft penguins and mushrooms.

 

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We thought they would never move. Even though Dad has been going on about living near the sea for the last twenty-five years and they both felt the small town they lived in for 35 years had sharpened into somewhere they hardly recognized, it seemed my parents would reluctantly stay put. Then they moved. It was family friend Joanna, a keen-eyed architect, who spotted the house while they were all on holiday nearby in Devon. A few days later I got a call in Rome telling me that they had put in an offer on a house in a village in West Dorset. Then it was us three kids proving the reluctant ones. ‘Were they sure they wanted to make this big move at this point in their lives?‘ ‘At which point was that‘ asked both parents before exchanging on the house.

Here I am two years later in Dad’s study in the new house looking through the window at Dad shifting things around the garden. It isn’t just a lovely house, but a house that feels lovely, and as much a home as the faithful one that was a family home for 35 years. Renovations are pretty much finished, except the kitchen, which feels a bit like camping, the floor marked with masking tape suggestions Joanna has told my parents to live with, trying out if you like, before making any final decisions. It is comfortable camping though, warmed by an AGA, home to the big table surrounded by the wicker backed chairs the grandkids are picking at in just the same way we used to, and a proper pantry. In the left hand corner sits the piano on which all three of us thrashed out arpeggios more than 25 years ago. Next to the piano sits a small temporary bookcase filled with Mum’s cookbooks.

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To be honest – and this may seem odd for a person who has just written and photographed a cook book – I often find cook books a bit overwhelming. This is mostly because I insist on flicking through new ones at the breakneck speed in bookshops I haven’t given myself enough time to linger in, pictures and recipes slapping me round the face. My mum’s books though, many of which I have myself, are nothing but reassuring. Above sit the hardbacks, which don’t feel hard at all, Nigel Slater, Sophie Grigson, Ann and Franco Taruschio and the Silver Spoon, Below are the soft penguins and other paperbacks, which feel nice to hold. Books by Jane Grigson, Elizabeth David, Claudia Roden, Colin Spencer, Simon Hopkison and Joyce Molyneux their pages yellowed by time, their spines lined with wrinkles. These are books of good writing and good recipes that fall open into the splits at pages encrusted with specks of pastry, mincemeat and bread sauce. Most of the books have bookmark fringes, records of a time when supper was called a dinner party, years of kids teas, weekend lunches, meals celebrating, meals consoling.

We are all back for a week around New year along with our young kids and some of our friends too, which has meant the nicest sort of cooking: festive but functional. Tasty and accommodating food that pleases large groups, some of whom might roll up late. Food that will keep well enough if someone happens to need half an hour of breathing space before getting back stuck in. Jane Grigon has been consulted for braised beef, glazed ham, shepherds pie and mince pies, Elizabeth David for red cabbage, cod Portuguese and prunes in red wine, Nigel Slater for soup and biscuits, Josceline Dimbleby for herrings in soured cream (which we have made twice) and the AGA book for treacle tart. We have made Simon Hopkinson’s excellent Potato gratin and then today, from a book called Leaves from our Tuscan Kitchen by Janet Ross, Funghi alla casalinga.

Leaves from our Tuscan Kitchen is a book I don’t have in Rome, and won’t be allowed to borrow until I return the pudding book and fish book I borrowed for a few months four years ago. It is a charming book written by an English woman who lived in Tuscany in the late 1800’s and who noted down her recipes which were inspired by her Tuscan home. It was re-published by her great, great-nephew in the 1970’s. It is, I imagine, the kind of book that could be pulled by pieces by purists questioning authenticity, whatever the heck authentic means. I find the simple recipes – which are mostly for vegetables –  and engaging descriptions utterly appealing. Mum suggested we make a recipe she used to make a lot as a starter in the 1980’s, mushrooms cooked in a mixture of butter and olive oil, seasoned with anchovy and chopped mint and then sharpened with lemon juice.

It is a particular sounding recipe I know, but a plainly delicious one. The anchovy far from being fishy, acts as gutsy seasoning and, like all well-behaved seasonings, doesn’t dominate but simply coaxes the mushrooms into being, more, um, mushroomy. Mint, musty and warm, works surprisingly well, as does the lemon, which sharpens everything up nicely. We piled the mushrooms and their buttery juices on brown toast, even though my mum thought it would have been better served alongside crusty white bread for mopping up. I think these mushrooms would also be good with rare steak, piled on a baked potato or on top of some proper polenta.

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Funghi alla casalinga – Mushrooms in butter with anchovy, mint and lemon.

Adapted from Leaves from our Tuscan Kitchen by Janet Ross

  • 1kg mushrooms
  • 100 g butter
  • 1 tbps olive oil.
  • salt and coarsely ground black pepper
  • 4 chopped anchovies
  • 2 sprigs of chopped mint.
  • juice of half a lemon.
  • a tablespoon of chopped parsley

If necessary wipe the mushrooms clean, then cup them into slices. In a wide frying pan, warm the butter and the oil and then fry the mushrooms gently until they are soft – which will take about 5 minutes.

Add a good pinch of salt, some freshly ground black pepper, the chopped anchovy and mint and continue cooking for another minute or so.

Add the lemon juice, stir and cook for another 30 seconds or so. Serve immediately.

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Cheers and Happy New year to you all. The book is coming along in the most lovely and reassuring way thanks to the happy team I have the privilege to work with. This week I am back in London to collect second page proofs which I will then take back to Rome to look over. Publishing day is June 4th for the UK and then March 2016 for the US, which seems both near and far. Until then I look forward to writing here as much as I can. Thanks as always for reading along – R.

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Filed under antipasti, books, mushrooms, Rachel's Diary, vegetables, winter recipes

tease out

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Rome through the eyes of a two-year old is simple; the Colosseum is the house of the giants; the Roman forum is the dinosaur house; San Pietro is a big chiesa; fountains are taps, except the fountain in Piazza Navona which is a tap with a fish (the fish being the dolphin Neptune is wrestling). Each landmark, however familiar, is greeted with a comedy gasp, announced as if for the first time and then repeated until I have a headache; house of the giants, house of the giants, house of the giants possibly trailing off into a whisper, house of the giants. The market is similarly straightforward. Yesterday Luca marched three feet ahead pointing and announcing the stalls like a town crier; fish, meat, flowers, pane, dog (a pet stall) fruit and then at our stall – having eaten the first this year the day before – yelled peas, peas, peas. Gianluca immediately obliged and handed Luca a pod, which he grabbed and I made a futile attempt ‘What do you say when you are given something?‘ But Luca was too busy opening the pod, crack and then, at discovering six green balls suspended in the bright green case, said babies. 

They were babies, tiny pouches of sweet and savory that pop in your mouth, the sort of peas that elude me most of the time. We bought a kilo and a half. Then rather than listening to myself and getting us out of the market as quickly as possible by offering/revoking the usual impatient bribes – If you get in your push chair you can have some chocolate. Get in your push chair this minute LucaMassimo or you won’t have any chocolate or anything ever – I listened to Luca who was shouting and pointing at a bench. So we sat on the sunny bench, or rather the concrete slabs that function as benches in the center of the new market and ate probably half a kilo of peas straight from their pods.

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With the rest of the peas I made something I look forward to each year, a spring vegetables stew, a vignarola of sorts, a dish of spring onions, artichokes, broad beans and peas braised in olive oil and water (or white wine) until tender. The key is adding the ingredients according to their cooking requirements; onion first, then artichokes, broad beans and finally peas which just need a caress of heat and the warm company of the other ingredients to release their sweetness and tease out their colour. Important too, is adding just enough liquid to moisten the vegetables and encourage them to release their own juices, the effect being an intense but gentle, graduated braise where flavors remain distinct but also harmonious. Precise timings are impossible to give, so tasting is imperative.

Tender wedges of velvet artichoke, sweet peas, buttery but slightly bitter broad beans all bound by a weave of smothered onion;  a dish that celebrates and captures the fleeting brilliance of spring vegetables and one of the best lunches I know. Especially good with a piece of quivering but tensile mozzarella di bufala that erupts beneath your knife and a toddler standing on a chair singing voglio peas and cheese before falling off and taking the glass bottle of water with him.

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I have written about vignarola before, and will probably do so again. It is not so much a recipe but a way of thinking about spring vegetables. In Rome there are as many versions of vignarola as there are cooks and opinions are strongly held. Adding some pancetta or guanciale is traditional, but much as I love both, I think they totally overwhelm the pure vegetable taste that is so desirable. Again cooking times depend entirely on the vegetables; these tiny tender things needed just minutes whereas later in the season as peas and beans get starchier, artichokes tougher and onions more intrusive, they will all need longer.

Vignarola – spring vegetable stew

serves two vignarola lovers for lunch with mozzarella, or four as a starter or side dish

  • a bunch of spring onions
  • 3 artichokes, ideally the purple tipped, Italian chokeless variety
  • a kilogram of peas in their pods
  • a kilogram of fave, broad beans in their pods (shelled but still with their opaque coats at this time of year)
  • water or white wine / olive oil and salt as needed

Trim and slice the spring onions in four lengthways and trim and cut the artichokes into wedges rubbing them with lemon as you go. Shell the peas and fave and set aside. Warm some olive oil in a deep sauté pan with a lid and add the onions, stir and sauté for a few minutes. Once the onions are floppy add the artichokes and sauté (turning the vegetables with a wooden spoon every now and then) for five minutes or so. Add a little white wine or water to the pan and everything bubble gently for a few more minutes. Add the broad beans, fave, stir, add a little more liquid if necessary and then cook over a low flame until the vegetables are tender (which depends entirely on the vegetables.) In the last couple of minutes add the peas. Add salt to taste.

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Filed under artichokes, Beans and pulses, fanfare, rachel eats Italy, Rachel's Diary, recipes, spring recipes, vegetables

a wink and a whorl

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I follow Jane Grigson’s advice I when I buy a cauliflower. ‘If the cauliflower looks back at you with a vigorous air, buy it; if it looks in need of a good nights sleep, leave it where it is.‘ Apart from the fact we could debate what vigorous looks like, it’s a good rule of thumb when choosing most fruit and vegetables. Except avocados that is, which taste better when they appear to have been on the razzle two nights in a row. It’s a rule of thumb that can also be applied to people, which in my case – sadly no razzle, just a wakeful toddler – means leaving me exactly where I am.

Rather confusingly Italians sometimes call winter cauliflower, broccolo. Not my fruttivendolo Gianluca though, he calls them cavolo, which usually means cabbage but is also an abbreviation of cavolfiore which literally means cabbage flower. To which we could reply ‘Che cavolo’ which beyond meaning ‘What cabbage’, is a response anything flummoxing or vexing, including cauliflower etymology. Rather than looking like flowers, I’ve always thought good cauliflowers with unblemished creamy-white whorls look like cumulus clouds, the ones that cluster in an otherwise blue sky.

If a cauliflower looks vigorous and its florets are tight and thick as thieves, then you need to be vigorous in your approach and armed with a sharp knife to cut away the outer leaves and thickest core before splitting the head into manageable florets. A good cauliflower should withstand a rolling boil. I am a big fan of boiled and braised vegetables and – with the exception of potatoes and parsnips – will take them over roasted almost every time, cauliflower, calm and creamy is no exception.

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Today’s recipe started life as another recipe, or part of one at least, the dressing for one of my favourite salads, puntarelle, the mere mention of which has me shooting off on a sentimental tangent that involves my friend Alice, a trattoria in an irritatingly pretty piazza, a paper tablecloth, Pyrex glasses, a litre of wine that was two steps away from battery acid, a grumpy waitress, braised rabbit and a bowl of pale-green curls of gently bitter salad with anchovy dressing.

I’d heard about an idiosyncratic salad practically unknown outside Rome (this is nine years ago,) a salad of catalonian chicory with dandelion-like leaves called punatelle that once trimmed, cut and immersed in cold water curled in much the same way as Shirley Temple’s hair. Pale green curls that are then dressed with a pungent and loudly delicious dressing of anchovies, garlic, olive oil and vinegar. Neither the wine or waitress could spoil our delight in the puntarelle salad we had – in the proprietorial manner of new arrivals in Rome – so happily discovered.

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Nine years later, less proprietorial, happily faded and pretty comfortable about still being in Rome, I prepare puntarelle a lot during it’s winter season. I say prepare, curl, pulse and assemble is a better description. Some people say the dressing should be made with a pestle and mortar, but I make mine with my immersion blender, and not just for speed, but because I like the more consistent, thicker dressing a few pulses creates. I also prefer lemon juice to vinegar, it gives the dressing a citrus-sharp but less aggressive edge.

Having made too much dressing last week, and with a dish of cauliflower, eggs and aioli dressing I ate at 40 Maltby street a few weeks back still a pertinent food memory, I made an improvised lunch of boiled cauliflower, black olives, hard-boiled eggs and punterelle dressing.

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This the third platter of this assembly, which is on the one hand innocent: pale, creamy cauliflower and just boiled eggs, and on the other full of experience: dark olives, garlic, richly fishy anchovy, peppery olive oil and citrus. It is important the water you are going to cook the cauliflower in is well salted, as this is what is needed to bring out the otherwise shy flavors in the cauliflower. I used taggiasca olives that are district, chewy and taste somewhere between dried plums and the leather wristband I used to chew throughout double chemistry with Mrs Toomer (not unpleasant, the wristband that is). Try and find good quality olive oil packed anchovies, cheap anchovies, like cheap olive oil and cheap mascara are best avoided.

Innocence and experience, and a brilliant combination of favours that compliment, tussle and then compliment again before giving you the culinary equivalent of a wink. I think it is delicious. Eat while the cauliflower and eggs are still warm.

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Cauliflower with hard-boiled egg, black olives and anchovy-lemon dressing

  • a head of cauliflower
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 6 anchovy fillets packed in olive oil
  • 8 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons of freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • a handful of black olives (ideally taggiasca olives in extra virgin olive oil)
  • 4 eggs
  • black pepper

Pull away the tough outer leaves, cut away the hard central stem and then break the cauliflower into florets. Drop the florets into a large pan of well-salted boiling water and cook until tender to the point of a knife. Drain and set aside.

Make the dressing either in a pestle and mortar (in which case first pound the garlic, then add the anchovy fillets and grind into a rough paste before stirring in the olive oil and lemon) or with an immersion blender or small food processor (in which case add all the ingredients, pulse rather than blast into a consistent but slightly textured dressing.)

Meanwhile hard-boil the eggs. Once the eggs are done plunge them into cold water until they are cool enough to handle, tap the shells , peel them and then slice each egg in two.

Arrange the florets in a shallow dish (cutting any large ones in two), scatter over the olives, arrange the hard-boiled egg halves, grind over some black pepper before spooning over the dressing. Serve while the cauliflower and eggs are still warm.

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Filed under anchovies, cauliflower, food, lemons, olive oil, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, supper dishes, Uncategorized, vegetables

all mixed

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‘Eat your greens’ is something I’ve never needed to be told (cajoled or forced) to do. As a child I happily ploughed my way through large servings of cabbage, brussels sprouts, spinach, spring greens, chard and broccoli. If they were glistening with butter, all the better. I was one of the few who ate the ambiguous heap of so-called greens whose odor lingered (like us) in corners and corridors around the school and appeared on every school lunch plate. ‘What a good little eater‘ relatives and dinner ladies would say. Which confused me, surely they meant what a good big eater? Later I would become a bad little eater, which relatives and dinner ladies had lots to say about, mostly in hushed tones with rolling eyes; bad, sad, spoilt, neglected, attention seeking, perfectionist, pain in the bloody neck. But even during those years, when I had a reputation of restriction to uphold (I was the only one interested in this reputation) I ate my greens.

Lately we have been eating something called misticanza, a mix of leaves and greens prepared by my fruttivendolo Gianluca that is somewhere between delicious and effort. I will come back to this. Now traditionally misticanza, which means a mixture of things, is assortment of leaves, field herbs and aromatic shoots collected at the first signs of spring from the fields surrounding Rome and eaten as a salad. Gillian Riley reminds us this habit of collecting wild plants is a holdover from the days when the poor, unable to afford a doctor, were cared for by countrywomen and their collections of wild plants possessing medicinal qualities.

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Far from seeming medicinal, true misticanza, which often includes young borage, sorrel, wild chicory, dandelion, salad burnet and poppy greens is a flavoursome delight, sweet and bitter, mostly tender but occasionally robust and just a little hairy. Which far from being unattractive means it’s full of character and delicious, at least I think so (I feel much the same about several other things.) You could of course opt for a smoother, more clean-shaven misticanza, the gathering is up to you, whether it be in your garden, field, or in my case local market.

These days in Rome the term misticanza is also used for an assortment of wild and cultivated greens  that need to be boiled in order to be edible. The quality of the misticanza depends on the source. Kind and reliable Gianluca often has a opinionated mix of properly hairy, slightly prickly borage, sweet escarole and chard, dandelion, wild chicory and a woody green that I still don’t know the name of. Having plunged the well-washed rabble into a pan of well-salted fast boiling water for a few minutes, you then drain it and saute it in plenty of garlic scented extra virgin olive oil.

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Normally I eat this more substantial misticanza just so, I adore the deep-green engaging substance of it, a textured, oily tangle scented with garlic. In fact I often sport a tuft of chicory between my front teeth all afternoon to prove it.  Yesterday however, having bought a slice of pure white,  properly fresh ricotta di pecora from my norcineria, we ate the misticanza with pasta.

This dish is a nice illustration of three things I have learned since living in Italy. The first, is insaporire, to give flavor, which I have written about before. By cooking the peeled and gently crushed garlic in olive oil over a low flame until fragrant and just turning gold the olive oil is given the sweet and savory flavour of the garlic. The garlic is then removed. The second is ripassare, to re-cook, on this occasion the boiled, drained misticanza in the garlic scented olive oil so the soft, rag-like greens can absorb the olive oil hungrily. The third, is using a little of the pasta cooking water, cloudy and slightly thick with starch, to thin the ricotta, parmesan and black pepper mixture thus making a cream which coats and then brings the ingredients together into a soft but substantial and unified whole. Eat your white and greens…not that you need telling.

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Rigatoni with ricotta and greens

You can of course use whatever greens you like. I like the combination of sweet and bitter greens and the different textures they offer. You know your greens I’m sure. Keep in mind the greens are boiled,  so quite substantial leafy ones work well. Keep very tender, delicate greens and leaves for salad.

serves 4

  • 300 g mixed greens (borage, escarole, radish leaves, chicory, spinach, chard, rocket. sorrel, chervil)
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • salt
  • 300 g ricotta (ideally sheep’s milk)
  • 40 g freshly grated parmesan
  • black pepper
  • 450 g rigatoni

Wash the greens thoroughly and then boil them for a few minutes in a large pan of well-salted boiling water. Use tongs to remove the greens from the pan into a colander. Keep the water for the pasta.

In a large warm bowl (I run mine under the hot tap and then dry it) mash the ricotta with the parmesan, plenty of black pepper and a couple of spoonfuls of the (slightly green) cooking water then beat it into a soft cream.

Bring the water back to a fast boil and add the pasta. Squeeze all the water from the greens and then chop them coarsely

Meanwhile in a frying pan over a low flame, saute the garlic – you have peeled and gently crushed with the back of a knife – in the olive oil until it is just turning golden and fragrant. Remove the garlic. Add the chopped greens and cook for a few minutes, stirring so each leaf is coated with oil. Remove the pan from the heat.

Once the pasta is al dente, drain, reserving a cupful of the pasta cooking water and then tip it onto the ricotta, add the greens and then toss the ingredients together thoroughly, adding a splash more of the reserved cooking water if the mixture seems stiff. Serve.

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Filed under cucina romana, Eating In Testaccio, food, pasta and rice, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, ricotta, vegetables

chasing crisp

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Rather like remembering not to rant or let fury at things beyond your control ruin your day, I’ve been trying to make the best of it. I even bought a nearly-cashmere cardigan, a pair of jade tights and rearranged the living room around a new striped rug that matches – quite incidentally – both cardigan and tights. I’ve tried to knit. I have crunched more leaves than my son. I have roasted chestnuts, smashed pumpkins and sliced porcini with stems the size of a babies leg for risotto, I even claimed ‘Autumn is my time of  year‘ in a proprietorial way while tossing my autumnal hair. But the truth is, I keep wanting to shout.

Not at the cold, I don’t mind that a jot, nor the drizzle – although the drizzle and anoraks are a pain –  but at the light, or lack of it. By 4 o clock as Luca wakes from his afternoon nap, the light is slipping away. We dress as hastily as is possible with a two-year old and then run, trying to catch the last hour, only to watch it being swallowed by dark. The park we used to run around until eight, is locked at five. The kiosk with it’s woven plastic chairs and memories of icy, sticky drinks and salty snacks, is empty. We adjust our jumpers and try to make the best of it, after all shops are starting to glitter and groan with christmas promise and cakes laced with dried figs and black pepper: this is no year for bah humbug, but the dark chases us home.

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Back home by 6 with a long evening ahead – we seem to have adopted a southern European bedtime – I swing between attentive mother:  a book called ballata, board games and baking biscuits and absent mother: Disney babysitter, smarties and a very large glass of wine while I read blogs about craft activities I could be doing and dipping (Molly I adore you), mothers who have their children in bed by 7 and how to host the perfect cocktail party. Then I make supper.

Autumn nights call for stout sustenance, ideally with butter or fringed with fat, food that satisfies and reassures. Well mostly! They also call for bright and crisp from time to time, something to slow the slide onto the rug, to offer contrast and just a little resistance. Two things provide this, the first is puntarelle: a relative of chicory that twists into crisp, sweet but bitter curls, that you dress with anchovy and garlic dressing, the second is a salad of orange, fennel and autumn’s most precious fruit: pomegranate.

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I like the mess: tiles and wood splattered with crimson. When we were little we would eat pomegranates that my Mum brought back from the Athenian Grocer on Moscow Road with a toothpick, impaling the little red jewels and pricking them into our mouths. I thought pomegranates were the most exotic fruit. I still do. When I go to live in Sicily – which I will – I will eat pomegranates every day I can.

Fennel: clean, crisp and with a bracing aniseed bite, slivers of orange, sweet and slightly acerbic pomegranate seeds, the right amount of salt and lots of best extra virgin olive oil makes a brilliant salad, one that manages to be both cool and warm, that provides brightness on dark days.  Especially good after a bowl of pasta e patate. Did I mention how much I like pasta e patate? Yes, good.

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This is fact the fourth time I have written about this sort of salad. It is based on the classic Sicilian salad of orange, fennel, black olives and possibly onion. You could of course add olives to this version, ideally the inky-black, wrinkled, oven-baked ones that taste somewhere between dried plum, leather and liquorice. You really do need to be generous with salt – sprinkle from high above so the salt is evenly distributed – and even more generous with the olive oil.

Fennel, orange and pomegranate salad

Serves 4

  • a large or two small bulbs of fennel
  • 2 oranges
  • a ripe pomegranate
  • salt
  • extra virgin olive oil

Remove the tough outer layers from the fennel setting aside a few feathery fronds and slice a few millimetres from the base. Cut the bulb in two and then slice it as thinly as possible.

Cut the bottom from the orange so it sits flat on the work surface and then pare away the skin and pith carefully with a sharp knife. Working carefully, again with a sharp knife, cut the flesh away from the membrane on each side of each segment so you have soft, pith-less arc of orange. Work over a plate to catch juices

Cut the pomegranate in half and gently break the fruit open to expose the seeds and pull them away from the membrane and onto a plate.

Arrange the sliced fennel and orange segments on a large plate, scatter with pomegranate seeds and fennel fronds. Pour over any orange or pomegranate juice that collected on the plates. Sprinkle with salt and zigzag generously with olive oil. Allow to sit for 30 minutes before serving

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Filed under fennel, In praise of, oranges, Rachel's Diary, recipes, salads, vegetables, winter recipes

water everywhere

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The first time I visited Saturnia I didn’t even go and look at the thermal springs. My reluctance was a combination of a flying visit, overcast skies, an overcast state of mind and the impression I was being asked to visit a muggy stream. The muggy, foul-smelling steam flanked with giant cane that ran across the ploughed fields and under the road we had just argued our way down. I spent the afternoon at the agriturismo reading, feeling overcast but stubbornly righteous as the rest of the group disappeared into the mist armed with costumes and towels.

Three years later and I now know what other (wiser, less stubborn) people have known for thousands of years; there is stream, only it isn’t muggy. It is a fast, foaming torrent of warm water, appearing milky-blue against the calcium-coated rock, its sulphurous vapours entirely forgivable. It is a source that erupts from deep within the volcanic earth – at which point a clever man built a spa – before surging across a field and then bursting into an almost unreal cascade by an old mill. A cascade reminiscent of a champagne fountain, the smooth, shallow travertine pools like a cluster of old-fashioned saucer glasses, the foaming water flowing like formula 1 spumante. It is a startling place of natural beauty.

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Our Hotel was just meters from the cascade. Consequently – come rain or more rain or shine – we spent much of our time in the water, arms wide on the curved lip of our chosen pool, water pummeling our necks, cleansing, exfoliating, softening, circulation stirring while we watched the most fantastically eclectic, occasionally bonkers, crowd do exactly the same thing. For the rest, we explored a part of Maremma.

Maremma is a large territory that saddles lower Tuscany and higher Lazio. It is a variegated place; vast flat plains fit for cowboys (Butteri), bleak cities, coniferous and metalliferous hills, exquisite hill-top towns, swampy natural park and coastal retreats: some craggy, others sandy. We were in Fiora Valley, five minutes from Saturnia, a rich, deep-green land of dense forest, undulating hills covered with vines, olive groves, oaks and chestnuts, of medieval hill-top towns their fortified walls rising like stone crowns.

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I read so obsessively about the food before the holiday I was almost weary of it by the time we arrived (a sharp editing lesson that too much suggestion of delicious, hearty, rustic, humble and bumble can leave people cool). I was jolted out my weariness short sharp.

Most of the places at which we ate were in small towns in the midst of groves and vines, meaning the oil and wine was produced just meters away. Sulphurous soil and thermal springs reap full-flavoured things, and so our meals were rich with excellent local produce; game, cured meat, sheep’s cheese, wild herbs, pulses, recently bottled fruit and vegetables. You can quite literally taste the land. Local salame with unsalted bread and pecorino with local honey, crostini topped olive paste, rosemary scented lardo and herb pesto, hand rolled pici pasta with garlic and tomato sauce, ravioli filled with ricotta and wild herbs, pappardelle with wild boar, white beans cooked in a flask and then dressed with olive oil, slow cooked meat with olives and fast seared steaks, grilled porcini mushrooms and of course acquacotta.

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Literally translated acquacotta means cooked water, it is – broadly speaking – a simple vegetable soup, served over day old bread and topped with an egg. Over 6 days we ate eight bowls of acquacotta, in six different places, each one different, each one good. Everyone I asked about the recipe said bread and water are fundamental, that onion and celery are important, but then it depends what you have; tomatoes, carrot, spinach, chard, herbs. The three best acquacotta were acutely different, one deep-red and tomato heavy, another brothy with spinach and wild mint, the third (my favourite) a dense stew of celery and onion with just a little tomato.

These days my holiday souvenirs are usually an injury, something to eat and a recipe. This holiday was no exception. I came home to Rome with a nasty scratch and three large bruises (my fault, do not enter the cascade after drinking more than your fair share of a bottle of Bianco di Pitigliano) a loaf of tuscan bread and this recipe for acquacotta.

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Acquacotta, is to my mind, a particularly satisfying and complete dish. Made well, it is pure tasting and savory (that will be the onion and celery) given warmth and rosy cheeks by tomato, body by celery leaves and something wild by the herbs if you choose to add them. The bread at the bottom ensures it is a dish with its feet firmly on the ground and the egg, well what doesn’t taste better with an egg on top?

As much as I liked the addition of chard and mint in the acquacotta at Il Tufo Allegro in Pitigliano, I have stayed true to Graziella’s recipe which was the closest to my favourite bowlful. You chop and then saute a weepingly large quality of red, white and yellow onion and lots of celery (the tender stems and their soft pale leaves) in plenty – this is no time for parsimony – of extra virgin olive oil. Once the onion and celery are soft you add some chopped tomatoes, salt and pepper, possibly a little chilli and let everything cook a few minutes longer. Then you add boiling water a ladelful at a time, so the pan never stops bubbling, until the vegetables are covered by a few inches of water. You leave the pan to bubble away for 40 minutes.

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While the acquacotta is bubbling you prepare the bowls by pitting a  slice of day old lightly toasted bread at the bottom of each, sprinkling it with a little grated pecorino or parmesan if you like. Once the acquacotta is ready you divide it between the four bowls – covering the bread with vegetables and some broth so it can inzuppare – but leave an inch of the broth in the pan. Into this remaining broth you break four eggs, cover the pan and then let the eggs poach gently over a low flame for 3 minutes. You use a slotted spoon to lift the eggs on top of the acquacotta in each of the four bowls. You eat.

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Acquacotta or L’acqua cotta

Everyone I asked, including Graziella, was reluctant to give very specific quantities, preferring instead q.b or quantobasta, or how much is enough. After all they assured me acquacotta is good enough to merit experimentation – amount of water, choice of vegetables, herbs ‘Yes or absolutely not‘, to toast or not to toast the bread and other points of contention – and adjusting according to season, place and taste. However based on the few measurements I was given and the two panfuls I have made at home, I have noted my measurements.

Adapted from a recipe given to me by Graziella Tanturli At Hotel La Fonte del Cerro

serves 4

  • 3 medium onions (one red, one white, one yellow)
  • 4 pale stems of celery heart with pale leaves
  • 100 ml extra virgin olive oil
  • 8 small plum tomatoes – ideally de-seeded.
  • salt and pepper (a little chill if you wish)
  • four slices of day old bread (ideally Tuscan bread, otherwise sourdough or a good quality compact country bread)
  • pecorino or parmesan cheese
  • 4 eggs

Bring a pan of water to the boil as you will need it shortly.

Peel and very thinly slice the onions. Chop the celery into thin arcs (cut any particularly wide stems in two lengthways). Warm the olive oil in large heavy-based pan and add the onion and celery. Saute the vegetables over low heat until soft and translucent. Add the chopped tomatoes, a good pinch of salt, a grind of pepper and the chilli if you are using it and cook for another few minutes.

Add the boiling water a ladleful at a time, so the vegetables never stop bubbling. Once the vegetables are covered by 3 inches of water, lower the flame and leave the acquacotta to simmer for 40 minutes. Taste and adjust for salt and pepper.

Prepare the bowls by putting a slice of toasted day-old bread at the bottom of each and sprinkling it with a little cheese.

Once the acquacotta is ready, divide it between the four bowls – covering the bread with vegetables and some broth so it can inzuppare – but leave an inch of the broth in the pan.

Break four eggs into the remaining broth, cover the pan and then let the eggs poach gently over a low flame for 3 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to lift the eggs on top of the acquacotta in each of the four bowls. Eat and imagine you are in Pitigliano.

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I am always wary of recommending places as other people do it so much better than me and things change and we all have different ideas and well, um, what if you were to go to a place I’d recommended and it turned out to be.….. However on this occasion I would like to mention:

Da Paolino, via Marsala 41, Manciano. Notably the cinghiale in umido (slow cooked wild boar), baccalà alla maremmana (salt cod with tomatoes and onion) and acquacotta. Moderately priced and attentive, friendly service.

Il Tufo Allegro in Pitigliano. We ate here twice, both meals were superb in every respect. The surroundings are stylish but warm in an ancient, warren-like building in the Jewish quarter of staggeringly beautiful Pitigliano (pictured above).  Notably: aquacotta with spinach, mint and quail’s eggs, pici all’agliata (thick spaghetti-like-pasta with tomato and garlic sauce), grilled porcini, cinghiale with fennel, tagliata di manzo and a gorgeous pudding of creamed ricotta, grilled, caramelized pear and warm chocolate sauce that almost made me sing (I had drunk rather a lot of wine). Expensive but offers a good value set lunch. Slick service. We drank wines from Sassotondo.

We stayed at La Fonte del Cerro. A beautifully situated, extremely well and thoughtfully tended family-run hotel with an almost private entrance to the Cascades (pictured below). Almost everyone we met was returning. We will too.

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Filed under Eggs, fanfare, In praise of, Maremma, rachel eats Italy, soup, tomatoes, vegetables, winter recipes

a family affair

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I may only have moved 400 meters, from one side of Testaccio to the other, but everything is different. Even things that have remained the exactly the same – like the bar in which I have my third coffee and the stall at which I buy my fruit and veg – feel different now I approach them from another direction. Streets I never usually walked are now familiar. Courtyards always peered into from one side appear entirely different from the other. A drinking fountain I’d only drunk from a handful of times is now my local. A bakery, a launderette, a minuscule sewing shop, a pet shop whose window we need to spend at least 10 minutes a day peering through whilst barking and a Norcineria I’d never even noticed are now part of my daily patter or grind depending on the day.

It’s not surprising I’d never noticed the Norcineria, as we both moved to Via Galvani at more or less the same time. The shop used to be about a mile away before the two brothers decided to come back to Testaccio. A Norcineria is a shop specialising in cured pork products which may also sell cheese, salame and other dried goods. The name derives from the town of Norcia in Umbria whose inhabitants (or some of them at least) are historically renowned and much sought after for their meat curing skills. Norcineria are places of pink flesh and seasoned fat, of pancetta, guanciale, lonzino, coppa, ciauscolo, shoulder steaks, loins, fillets and air-dried delights.

Norcineria Martelli on Via Galvani is a neat, pleasing place with meat counter to the left, dried goods to the right and the altar to porchetta – roasted suckling pig with salt, black pepper, garlic rosemary and spices – straight ahead as you come through the door. Which I do most days, my son in tow shouting loudly enough to arouse concern. Brothers Bruno and Sergio are amicable and honest, as are their pork and products. What’s more, on Tuesdays and Saturdays they also have bread from Velletri and a dome or two of best sheep’s milk ricotta.

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I am disproportionately fond of ricotta di pecora: brilliant white, compact but wobbly enough to remind you not be so serious and embossed with the ridges of the cone it was moulded in. We eat ricotta several times a week, its creamy, sweet but sharp and sheepish nature indispensable in both sweet and savory. I shape it into lumps, stir it into pasta, smear it on bread (which I then finish with lots of salt, black pepper and olive oil), slice it over beans, spoon it beside fruit, nuts and honey, whip it into puddings or bake it into tarts and cakes.

Then this week I mixed my ricotta with wilted spinach – I never failed to be impressed by the way disobedient spinach once disiplined into a pan wilts so obediently – lots of freshly grated parmesan, an egg, a nip of nutmeg, salt and plenty of black pepper.

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Today recipe is inspired by the polpette di ricotta e spinach we eat as often as possible at another favorite place and one of the best tavola calda in Rome these days: C’è pasta e pasta, another family affair – in this case a brother and sister – just the other side of ponte Testaccio on Via Ettore Rolli.

The key is making a relatively firm mixture of ricotta and spinach and the key to a firm mixture is making sure you drain the spinach meticulously. Drain, then squeeze and press until you have an almost dry green ball. The ricotta too should be drained of any excess liquid. If the mixture is firm you shouldn’t have any problems shaping it into golf ball sized polpette you then flatten slightly with the palm of you hand. Why is this so satisfying I’m not sure, but it is. Squash.

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Then the double roll: first in flour, then after a bath in beaten egg, fine breadcrumbs. The breadcrumbs come from Guerrini, another Galvani institution I’d previously ignored, a family run forno or bakery just next to our flat that is providing me with more soapoperaesque drama, pizza bianca, sugar-coated, doughnut like ciambelle and breadcrumbs than I really need.

Once double rolled, you fry the polpette in hot oil. I use sunflower oil (as do C’è pasta e pasta) but some of my Roman friends prefer olive oil. They take just minutes shimmying in a disco coat of bubbles until they are deep gold and crisp. Polpette di ricotta e spinaci are best eaten while they are still finger and tongue scaldingly hot, while their coating is sharp, decisive and shatters between your teeth before giving way to a soft, warm filling of cheese and spinach.

Thank you for all your kind messages and comments about the book, they mean a lot and have made me feel as golden (but not quite as crisp and decisive) as a freshly fried polpette.

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Polpette di ricotta e spinaci - Ricotta and spinach patties (or fritters, balls, nuggets, croquettes, cakes or thingamajigs*)

makes about 15

  • 500 g spinach
  • 400 g ricotta (ideally sheep’s milk but cow’s milk works beautifully too)
  • 50 g parmesan or pecorino
  • 3 large eggs
  • nutmeg
  • salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • flour
  • breadcrumbs
  • oil for frying

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

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

Add the ricotta to the spinach mixture and stir gently but firmly with a wooden spoon. Next add 1 egg, the grated parmesan,   flour, a grating of nutmeg, salt and freshly ground black pepper. Keep stirring the ingredients until they are evenly mixed, taste and adjust seasoning if necessary, stir again. Let the mixture rest in the fridge for a couple of hours.

Prepare three dishes, one containing the two beaten eggs, one of seasoned flour and one of breadcrumbs. Using a teaspoon scoop out a golf ball sized lump of the spinach and ricotta mixture. Shape it onto a ball and then flatten it into a patty. Dip it in flour, then egg and finally roll it in the breadcrumbs until evenly coated. Put the polpette on a plate lined with baking parchment while you prepare the rest of the polpette.

In a deep frying pan or saucepan, the oil to 190° and then carefully lower in three or four polpette at a time. Allow them to cook for about two minutes or until they are crisp and deep gold. Use a slotted spoon to lift them onto another plate lined with kitchen towel. Once blotted, slide the polpette onto the serving plate, sprinkle with salt and eat immediately.

*I have called these patties, which sounds comical and /or ridiculous I know, but then so does balls. Suggestions are welcome. Update, thank you for all your advice and I have taken it all.

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Filed under antipasti, cheese, fanfare, fritti, ices, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, ricotta, spinach, vegetables