Category Archives: vegetables

polish and scrub

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After two unsuccessful ventures, we finally found the marble man. He was in fact as promised, at the wrong end of Lungotevere Testaccio. The very endafter the Romany camp, behind an intimidating gate, tucked under the railway bridge. A machine screeched and then stopped abruptly as we entered the marble flanked workshop. The marmista turnedpulled down his goggles and stared hard. ‘We’ve been sent by Emanuela at Testaccio market‘ I garbled. At which suspicion faded into something cordial. Five minutes, a sketch, a sum and some marble stroking later and we laid a crisp deposit on the dusty workbench. ‘Lunedi’ he promised before lifting back his goggles and turning his attention to a sheet of pale grey marble streaked with deep blue veins.

A week later and my carrara marble table top is balanced, temporarily, on the odd pine table that came with the flat. The pine table is bigger, so it’s peeping out like a Tom.  I’m told there is a blacksmith who could make me a base near Monte Testaccio, but until we can get to the bottom of his idiosyncratic working hours, the balancing act and peeping will continue. I still amazed we got the marble back in one piece, driving as we did in an almost unsuspended car through Roman traffic.  It was only as we veered from Via Marmorata into Via Galvani that I noted the significance: Via Marmorata is called as such because it was the route along which enormous quantities of marble (marmo) passed into Rome in Antiquity. Two thousand years later and we too had passed along the marble route bearing marble. I am ridiculously happy with my 60 x 100 slab and keep polishing it.

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I have also been scrubbing. Not the marble obviously, nor the floor, even though it could do with a bloody good clean. I’ve been scrubbing new potatoes and top and tailing green beans, lots of them, in order to make Patate e fagiolini condite. Which I could translate as potato and green bean salad. Which it isn’t. Or is it? I’m not familiar with salad law. Eitherway, I prefer the literal translation – potatoes and green beans dressed. Simply dressed obviously, after all it’s 30° and the last thing we want is fussy or complicated. I’ve also been pulling leaves from the bedraggled mint plant that’s – despite my neglect and the searing heat – hanging on for mint life on the balcony. Mint, as we know, makes a good bedfellow for both potatoes and beans. But more about that in a paragraph.

This is barely a recipe. It is however a nice assembly and one of my favorites at the moment, just so, beside a lamb chop, next to a hard-boiled egg and some tuna, under a slice of pure white young sheep’s cheese such as primo sale. You need best, properly waxy new potatoes, ideally large ones that can be boiled in their skins and then peeled once cool enough to handle. You also need fine green beans: pert, sweet and nutty, salt and good extra virgin olive oil. Mint or vinegar is optional.

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There are five things to remember. Scrub but don’t peel the potatoes, then boil them whole. Cook the beans in well-salted fast-boiling water until they are tender with just the slightest bite but no absolutely no squeak. Tear the mint into tiny pieces with your fingers. Dress the vegetables while they are still warm with a hefty pinch of salt – launched from high above so evenly dispersed – and enough extra virgin olive oil to make a dietitian bristle and each chunk and bean glisten. Let your dressed vegetables sit – in a cool place but not the fridge – for a while before serving.

It should be a well-dressed tumble, the chunks of potatoes distinct but breaking gently at the edges, so blurring everything slightly. For me the optional mint – I adore the way mint manages to be both bright and moody in the same moment – is vital.  It lends something cool and herbal and renders a dish made with Italian ingredients on a humid and tempestuous Tuesday in Rome decidedly English and familiar. I don’t usually add vinegar. If I do, I don’t add mint and it’s a dash of red wine vinegar, sharp and pertinent. In my opinion balsamic vinegar – which generally seems to be both over and misused these days – isn’t right here. You may disagree.

A reminder that good ingredients, well-prepared, well-paired, well-dressed and served at the right temperature (that is just warm) are delicious.

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Patate e fagiolini condite  Potatoes and green beans (dressed)

Inspired by a comment from a Christine. Advice, as usual, from Jane Grigson.

  • 4 large waxy potatoes or many little ones
  • 500 g fine green beans
  • a few small fresh mint leaves
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • salt
  • red wine vinegar (if you like)

Scrub the potatoes and top and tail the beans.

Put the whole, scrubbed potatoes in a large pan, cover them with cold water, add salt and then bring the pan to the boil. Reduce to a lively simmer and cook the potatoes until they are tender to the point of a knife.

Tip the beans into a large pan half-full of salted water at a rolling boil and boil them uncovered hard and briefly – eight minutes should do the trick – until they are tender but still with the slightest bite. Drain the beans.

Wait until the beans and potatoes are cool enough to handle but still warm. Put the beans in large bowl. Using a sharp knife pare away the potato skin and then roughly chop and break the potato over the beans. Tear the mint leaves into the bowl. Sprinkle generously with salt and then pour over some olive oil and the vinegar if you are using it. Use your hands to gently turn and mix the ingredients. Taste and add more salt and olive oil if necessary. Leave to sit for at least 30 minutes before serving. Turn again before serving.

A suggestion.

Patate e fagiolini condite are delicious served with grilled lamb. Romans call young lamb cutlets cooked briefly so burnished outside but still pale pink and tender within: costolette di abbachio alla scottadito or simply abbachio a scottadito. Literally translated this means lamb cutlets to burn your fingers, reminding you they should be eaten as soon as possible from the grill or coals – so blisteringly hot – with your fingers.

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Filed under Beans and pulses, food, lamb, potatoes, Rachel's Diary, summer food, vegetables

a little discretion

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During the last two weeks I’ve watched four cooks in four kitchens do exactly the same thing. That is, pull two cloves from a bulb of garlic, peel them, fry them gently whole in plenty of olive oil until soft, golden and fragrant, then remove them. The answer as to why was – give or take a gesture – exactly the same: insaporire. Which literally translated means to flavour or make tasty. Which on these four occasions meant allowing the garlic to impart its savory and earthy perfume into the oil then – like a good guest, neither dominating or outstaying his welcome – take leave.

I’ve come to understand – finally – that this process, insaporire, is key to countless Italian dishes. The process can be more involved: garlic, herbs, spices, vegetables and cured meat, but mostly it’s as simple as garlic cooked until mild, fragrant and sweet in olive oil. Of course there are occasions when a potent roar of chopped, smashed or crushed garlic is required. Rarely though! Most of the time it’s this attentive sizzle of garlic in olive oil that provides the deeply but discreetly flavoured start to a dish.

Of course opinions differ as to the precise moment you should remove the garlic, the ideal shade of golden and if it’s appropriate to return the cloves to the pan (as was the case with the third cook and her pan of fresh tomato sauce in which the returned clove; soft and sweet provided a prize on one plate.) But the principle remains the same and one thing absolutely clear: never burn the garlic or it will be bitter.

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We are staying in an agriturismo in the Sabine hills just of north of Rome. I know the area relatively well having spent lots of time with my friends Ezio and Ruth, their house being situated just a few curves of the road and an olive grove away. In fact we walk the curved road each morning at about 7 30, the sun already omnipotent, the air thick with the scent of honeysuckle, the peace interrupted only by three horrid little dogs snarling and snapping at our ankles on the first curve. Having run the gauntlet of the canine onslaught and in the safety of the second curve, I’ve been trying to teach Luca to say cock-a-doodle-doo. Chicchirichi he squeals. I’ve tried to explain that cocks go cock-a-doodle-doo not chicchirichi to which he replies chicchirichi.

Ezio was the fourth of the four cooks. Making lunch for Ruth, Daisy, Felix, Luca and me while we cleared up wearily after a hot and hectic morning in the English garden: our rogue English summer school, he poured far more extra virgin olive oil than any recipe would dare to suggest – cold pressed from their own olives – into the bottom of the well seasoned pan. He then put the pan over a medium flame and added two peeled cloves. The cloves sizzled gently – shimmied really, in their coats of tiny bubbles –  for the whole of our conversation. So, about five minutes. The kitchen smelt of good things. He then removed the garlic.

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For this particular lunch Ezio first added cooked chickpeas and their broth to the garlic infused oil, then pasta, for an elemental pasta e ceci of sorts. It was simple, satisfying and delicious, the garlic, like well-chosen background music, enhancing but never intruding.

Then back at the agriturismo, eager to practice my attentive sizzle in Mario and Beatrice’s golden olive oil, I did as Ezio and the three cooks before him had done; I took two cloves. To my well-flavoured oil I added local courgettes cut into thick coins. I let them fry for ages, until they were golden, unfashionably soft and oil sodden. I added courgette flowers and several basil leaves (torn not chopped) to the pan before pulling it from the heat so the leaves and flowers wilted – like an English woman in the Sabine hills in June –  and their sweet, spicy scent bloomed in the residual heat.

I left them to sit for a while so the flavors could settle and the oily juices thicken. I ate them just warm with a ball of weeping mozzarella di bufala and bread, a supper so nice it made up for the unilateral mosquito attack.

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Not really a recipe rather a way to cook. Practice and then apply as you feel fit.

Courgettes cooked in olive oil

serves 2 as a main, 4 as a starter.

  • extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 large or three small cloves of garlic
  • 6 – 8 courgettes (ideally the pale creamy green and ribbed variety with flowers still attached)
  • salt
  • basil leaves

Pour a generous amount of extra virgin olive oil into a heavy based sauté pan. Peel and add the whole cloves of garlic to the pan. Warm the olive oil over a medium flame allowing the garlic to sizzle gently – turning the cloves every now and then – for about 5 minutes or until it is soft, golden and fragrant. Do not let it burn. Remove the garlic.

Remove the flowers and set them aside and then slice the courgettes into thick coins. Add the courgettes to the pan along with a generous pinch of salt. Turn the courgettes in the oil until each coin is glistening with oil. Allow the courgettes to sizzle gently – turning them occasionally – over a medium low flame until they are very soft and just a little golden. This will take about 15  — 25 minutes depending on the courgettes.

Tear the basil and the courgette flowers into small pieces and add them to the pan. Pull the pan from the heat and stir, allowing the flowers and basil to wilt in the residual heat.

Season and serve as a antipasto with mozzarella, stirred into pasta or as a vegetable side dish.

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Filed under courgettes, food, rachel eats Italy, Rachel's Diary, Uncategorized, vegetables

vital signs

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It was the wrong way round. I’d begin with a recipe. Then clinging onto my list and intent, I’d go to the shops. Other things might be bought – an irresistible this, an eye-catching if unnecessary that – but the focus was the list. Setbacks would merely reinforce my resolve and the lines on my forehead. ‘No spinach!’ ‘ No lamb chops!’ ‘No organic lemongrass!’ ‘No prepared pomegranate seeds for my meze’ I’d gasp before tearing around the shops as if my life (or lunch) depended on it, until I found the vital ingredient.

These days I begin at the market. There will probably be an idea or recipe drifting around, but nothing too specific and certainly no list. Well apart from the basic supplies, usually written on the torn lip of a bank statement envelope: washing powder, pan scrub, tea bags, plain flour, even plainer biscuits. A shabby list I retrieve from the bottom of my bag a few days later – along with half a lollypop, four stones, a topless lip salve, a car and an ounce of cracker crumbs – still with nothing to cross off.

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I haven’t got time to wander aimlessly around the market like you’ said an acquaintance. ‘I’m so busy that I have to make lists! I have to shop once a week.’ I’m so aimless I didn’t bother to answer. We are all busy, but we make time for things that matter. The market matters to me. So I go most days, before or after work, in-between naps. I make detours and excuses in order to spend time – some days just minutes, other days just ages – looking and then buying what looks good. In the words of brilliant Simon Hopkinson ‘See good things, buy them. Buy wine to go with food. Come home. Have glass of wine. Cook the food and eat with more of the wine.’

At this time of year, the two Testaccio markets (as I’ve noted before we are not talking about two quaint Mediterranean idylls here, but ordinary, straightforward and good places to buy food) are the best source of inspiration  The splatters have spread like ink on blotting paper and now both markets are awash with red! Half a dozen types of tomato, cherries and berries, mottled red and white borlotti and pimento peppers so big, bold and red-blooded they make the apricots blush. On Monday I bought five peppers and a kilo of small tomatoes, each plum ending in a point which made it seem as if it was wearing an elfin hat. I came home. I pulled Jane Grigson from the bookshelf. I had a glass of wine. I made peperonata.

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Peperonata is red peppers, onion and tomatoes stewed in olive oil and butter until they soften, collapse and thicken into a rich, vivid stew. It is one of the simplest and most delicious vegetable dishes I know.

There is a moment of stove top alchemy when you make peperonata. It’s when – having softened the sliced onion in butter and oil – you add the sliced red peppers and cover the pan. In just a matter of minutes the crisp, taut slices of pepper surrender their abundant juices and then proceed swim and soften in their own juices: a deep pool of cardinal red stock. After about 15 minutes you uncover the pan and add the peeled and roughly chopped tomatoes which also relinquish their juices. You let the peperonata cook uncovered for 30 minutes or so, simmering and reducing until almost all the liquid has evaporated and you are left with thick, vivid and vital stew. To finish, you season the stew vigorously with salt, pepper and even a little vinegar if you wish to sharpen things up a little.

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Pepornata: thick, rich, silken and tasting of somewhere warm and brilliant, is delicious served warm with chicken, veal or fish. It makes a good bed for an egg: fried, poached or soft-boiled, the yolk spilling into the red stew and making your plate look like a desert sunrise. I like peperonata as part of an antipasti style lunch slithering seductively beside soft, sharp cheese, lean, pink lonzino and a few salty black olives. It is also nice stirred into pasta. It keeps well so make plenty and then spoon some into a clean jar and float enough olive oil on the surface to seal the contents.

Peperonata  Sweet pepper and tomato stew

Adapted from Jane Grigson’s recipe in her Vegetable book and Elizabeth David’s recipe in Mediterranean Food

  • a large white onion
  • 4 tbsp olive oil
  • a knob of butter
  • 5 large or 8 medium-sized red peppers
  • 6 good ripe tomatoes (or two dozen tiny plum ones)
  • salt

Peel and slice the onion and then sauté it in olive oil and butter until soft and lightly golden. Cut the peppers into strips, discarding the stalks, seeds and pith.

Add the sliced peppers to the pan, stir and then cover the pan and leave over a medium flame for 15 minutes.

Peel and roughly chop the tomatoes and add them to the pan. Leave the peperonata to cook uncovered for 30 – 40 minutes at a lively simmer or until all the liquid has evaporated away and the peppers are extremely soft and lie in a rich. vivid tomato stew. Season vigorously with salt, possibly black pepper and even a dash of vinegar if you see fit.

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Filed under antipasti, food, peppers, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, spring recipes, summer food, vegetables

Pod and pinch

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I nearly postponed lunch last Sunday. I’d forgotten something that put the kibosh on the pottering, cooking and mild house straightening I had planned for the morning before the lunch after. A well-meaning friend (with a kitchen the size of my flat and a similarly sized ability to rustle up a lunch for twelve) suggested I made something in advance and set the dining table the night before. I nodded politely and didn’t remind her I can barely keep up with basic never mind advanced at the moment, and that I only have one table, which also functions as my desk. As I said, I nearly postponed lunch last Sunday. Then I didn’t. For which I’m glad, as it turned out to be a nice lunch.

I’d barely taken my coat off when the first guest arrived. Late and ill-prepared I should have been flustered. Come to think of it I was. But then she opened a well-chilled bottle and poured me some dark inky-red wine that fizzed and frothed as it settled in my glass. Good Lambrusco I’ve discovered, is not an oxymoron. It was crisp, bone dry and tasted of bitter cherries, blackberries and burdock, a delicious way to lift my tardy spirits. Then while I trimmed artichokes, Cameron rolled up her sleeves and started podding peas.

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It had been a while since I’d had kitchen company, cooking having been a pretty solitary pursuit lately. I was reminded how much – when I let it happen –  I love the chatter and the convivial, consuming bustle of shared kitchen enterprise. I don’t know Cameron well, but we were soon comfortable in companionable activity. It helped that she is a chef from San Francisco, capable and laid back in equal measure, a pretty perfect kitchen companion. As was the Lambrusco.

Another friend arrived and joined the podding while I sautéed curls of spring onion and fat wedges of artichoke for a spring vegetable stew. I had done a smidgen of early morning preparation, which meant the potatoes only needed boiling and the mayonnaise stirring. I abandoned plans for chickpea fritters, then while the podders progressed from peas to fave and the sun turned it’s shining up a notch, I made a fennel and orange salad (again.)

Dan and Fran arrived with more wine and salami. Kitchen mess was managed, the table set and then we ate – in no particular order – vignarola piled on bruschetta with ricotta di pecora, salami, waxy new potatoes with home-made mayonnaise, fennel and orange salad with more Lariano bread. To finish, Dan had made biscuits, superlative chocolate ones sandwiched together with dark chocolate granache. We all drank rather too much wine. It all felt comfortably chaotic, ad hoc and lovely.

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None of which has anything to do with today’s recipe! Well except the peas, which I podded alone and observed it is a task best done in company while drinking Lambrusco. The peas I podded and then cooked in much the same way as the Vignarola, the stew of spring vegetables I wrote about last week and made for the nearly postponed lunch. That is a gentle saute with some spring onion in extra virgin olive oil. Then – with the help of a glass of wine (what and who isn’t helped by a glass of wine? ) part braise /part steamy simmer which means the vegetables cook in their own juices and all the flavors: sweet and savory, grassy and buttery are kept closely.

I removed half the braised peas from the pan, reduced them to a paste with the immersion blender before returning them to rest of the peas and stirring until I had a soft, textured cream the colour of which seemed a fitting hue for a boat an owl and a pussy cat might set sail in. A generous spoonful of ricotta, a pinch of coarse salt and three grinds of black pepper and lunch was well underway.

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As I suspected, pea and ricotta cream: a gentle muddle of sweet grassy peas, savory onion and quivering ricotta is good on toast rubbed with garlic and streaked with olive oil. A pretty perfect spring antipasti in fact, especially on Tuesday while you are making farfalle pasta.

You can of course use dried farfalle (farfalle means butterflies which obviously refers to the shape). Or you could make them. Which really isn’t difficult! Believe me, I managed and although enthusiastic I’m hardly the most skilled pasta maker. Standard pasta dough, kneaded prudently and rolled thinly – notes below. Then the particularly nice bit: you cut the pasta into smallish squares – I did this by hand which meant rather idiosyncratic squares – and then you pinch.

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Once your pasta is pinched, you just need to cook it in large pan of water that is boiling and rolling around like a tempestuous sea. The water should taste like the sea too, so salt it generously. Fresh egg pasta cooks relatively quickly, keep tasting. Once the pasta is cooked but still slightly al-dente (literally translated this means to the tooth and refers to the fact the pasta still has bite) use a slotted spoon to lift your butterflies onto the pea and ricotta sauce. Turn the pasta in the sauce making sure each pinched piece is coated. Divide the pasta between two bowls and finish with a spoonful of ricotta.

Short of eating them straight from their pods while walking back from the market along the Tevere river in the sunshine, this is one of nicest ways to eat tender spring peas. As nice as vignarola, as nice even – and I can’t really believe I am saying this – as the gloriously good Venetian pea and rice soup you eat with a fork – risi e bisi. Peas and butterflies, pod and pinch.

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Farfalle con piselli e ricotta  Farfalle pasta with peas and ricotta cheese

serves 2

  • 200 g semolina or plain flour suitable for pasta
  • 2 eggs
  • salt
  • 1 kg peas in their pods
  • 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 large or 4 small spring onions
  • a  small glass of dry white wine
  • 200 g ricotta (ideally sheep’s milk ricotta) plus more for serving
  • freshly ground black pepper.

Make the pasta.

Make a mound of flour on the work surface and scoop a deep hollow in the center. Sprinkle over a pinch of salt. Break the eggs into the hollow and then using your fingers beak the yolks and start working the egg into the flour. Bring the dough together until you have a smoothly integrated mixture. Knead the dough for a full eight minutes by which time it should be smooth and soft as putty.

Cut the ball of pasta into 6 pieces (the general rule is the number of pieces should be 3 times the number of eggs. So 2 eggs = 6 pieces). Sprinkle the work surface with flour. Set the pasta machine to the widest setting. Flatten one of the pieces of dough by pummeling it with your hands and then run it through the machine. Fold the pasta as you would an envelope by bringing the two ends over each other and run it through the machine again. Repeat with the other 5 pieces. Close the gap in the rollers down by one notch and run the pasta pieces through one by one. Continue thinning the pieces progressively closing down the notches one by one until the pasta is as thin as you want it.

Using a sharp knife or pasta cutter, cut the pasta into 1 1/2″ by 1 1/2″ squares and pinch (hard) in middle of the square, squeezing the top and bottom together so you have a butterfly / bow tie.

Make the sauce

Pod the peas. Peel and finely slice the spring onion. Warm the olive oil  heavy bottomed saute pan or enamelled cast iron pot. Saute the sliced onion over a medium heat until it is soft and translucent. Add the peas, stir, add the wine and then let the peas cook for a few minutes or until they are tender. Older, larger peas will take longer.

Remove half the pea mixture, puree with an immersion blender and return to the pan. Season the mixture generously with salt and black pepper. Add the ricotta and stir until you have a pale, textured cream.

Cook the farfalle in well-salted fast boiling water. It will take about 6 minutes. Once cooked, use a slotted spoon to lift the pasta from the water and onto the sauce. Stir, adding a little of the pasta cooking water if the sauce seems a little stiff.

Serve immediately with another spoonful of ricotta on top and freshly grated parmesan for those wish.

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Filed under pasta and rice, peas, ricotta, spring recipes, vegetables

Spring into lunch

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I feel like L.B Jefferies, sitting as I do, looking out of my rear window onto the courtyard. Lately I’ve been distracted by one window in particular. It starts early: rugs are beaten, sheets shaken and then throughout the day washing pegged, unpegged and pegged again on a line strung in a droopy grin from one window to the next. Yesterday two sets of curtains were washed and dried, as were three pairs of red slippers, a leopard-skin something and a tartan travel rug. As I write, slippers (still damp I imagine) have been pegged back out, various items shaken and some precarious window cleaning undertaken.

Unaccustomed as I am to spring cleaning (or cleaning in general for that matter, I’m a domestic disgrace) the activity across the courtyard almost propelled me into something yesterday. Then I remembered we’re moving in just over a month which will mean much shifting and sweeping. So much in fact, that I think I’m entitled to almost total domestic inertia until we bring in the boxes. By the way, I have no idea where we’re moving to, which is making me feel most peculiar.

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A year and a half ago I could well have sat, computer glowing with the suggestion of work, caffe in hand, worrying while watching out of my rear window for hours. I tried to do this the other day. It was all going well; caffe sipped and gaze fixed. Then my neglected eighteen month old son jolted me back into a noisy and messy reality that involved two pan lids and a family sized bottle of shampoo. I could have taken the soapy opportunity to do some sort of cleaning but didn’t. We went to the market instead.

Testaccio market has moved of course. The century old mercato with its iron uprights and grimy glass roof, with it’s coarse, chaotic charm and surly attitude has now been replaced by a bright, polite and shiny-white structure that adheres to all sorts of regulations. We walk past the site of the old market – now bulldozed to the ground – on our way to the new market where neat rows of stalls sit subdued bearing neat piles of whatever. Not that this bright neatness has dissuaded us! If anything, we’re even more fiercely loyal to the displaced stall holders now they are at the mercy of a shiny but unfinished market, bureaucracy and ridiculous rents.

White and bright it may be, but Gianluca’s Stall was looking distinctly old-fashioned on Tuesday. A little more like it used to, piled high in an unruly manner as it was with the most glorious greens. Late April in Rome means an embarrassment of vegetable riches: peas and fave in their pods, grass like agretti, posies of broccoletti, rebellious spinach, wild and tame asparagus, wet garlic, spring onions. And of course the last of the tender-hearted warriors: artichokes, of which we bought three. A kilo of peas and fave both and a bunch of fat spring onions are we were set. For lunch that is.

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Vignarola is a stew of spring vegetables. A tender, tumbling dish of fresh peas, broad beans (fave), spring onions, artichokes and (possibly) soft lettuce. It is one of my absolute favourite things to eat. Made authentically, vignarola is an elusive dish, possible only for few weeks between April and May when there is overlap, a vegetable eclipse if you like, between the first tiny peas, fave and sweet bulbs and the last of the artichokes. Now is the time!

There is plenty of preparation: trimming of artichokes, podding of peas and fave, slicing of onion. But once the vegetables are sitting tamed and obedient in their bowls it’s all pretty straightforward. You fry the onion gently in olive oil. You add the artichoke wedges, a pinch of salt and stir until each wedge glistens with oil. Next a glass of wine for the pan (and another for the cook) before you cover the pan for 15 minutes or so. To finish, you add the peas and fave, stir and cover the pan for a few more minutes or until the vegetables are tender and the stew has come together into a moist, tumbling whole. Vignarola is best after a rest and served just warm.

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The flavours are wonderful together: artichokes tasting somewhere between best asparagus, the stem of steamed Calabrese broccoli and porcini, peas sweet and grassy, fave like buttered peas with a bitter afterthought and onions sweet and savory. But it’s the textures that really astound: the dense, velvety artichokes, the sweet explosion of pea, the smooth and waxy fave and the sly and slippery onion. Did I mention vignarola is one of my favourite things to eat?

We ate our vignarola with ricotta di pecora and bruschetta (that is toast rubbed with garlic and streaked with extra virgin olive oil) It was a good combination: the creamy, unmistakably sheepish cheese pairing well with the tender stew and the oily, garlic stroked toast.

The beauty of this dish is the cooking: part braise/part steamy simmer. The vegetables cook and roll round idly in their own juices meaning the flavours are kept as closely as guarded secrets, something Marcella Hazan calls smothered. It is – as you can probably imagine – impossible to give precise timings for vignarola as so much depends on your ingredients. Small tender artichokes may only need ten minutes, larger globes twenty. The tiniest peas may only need a minute or two, larger more mealy ones ten. Then there is the matter of taste! But isn’t there always? Do you want a brothy dish or something tumbling and moist? Adjust liquid accordingly. Do you like a lick of alcohol (I do) or would you prefer the pure taste of water?  Now I fear I have made it sound complicated! It isn’t. Best ingredients, instinct, lots of tasting and you can’t go wrong.

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I should note that a traditional Roman vignarola contains pancetta or guanciale and lettuce. I don’t generally add either but you might like to. Unless the fave are properly tender and tiny I remove their tough opaque jackets – I have noted this below – a faff I know, but a worthwhile faff. Have a glass of wine while you pop. Spring cooking in lieu of spring cleaning, Hurrah.

Vignarola   Spring vegetable stew

serves 4

  • 3 large artichokes
  • a lemon to acidulate a bowl of cold water
  • 1 kg peas in their pods
  • 1 kg fave in their pods
  • 2 large or 6 small spring onions
  • 6 tablespoons olive oil
  • salt
  • a glass of white wine (or water)

Prepare the artichokes by first pulling away the darker tougher leaves, pulling them down towards the base of the artichoke and snapping them off just before the base. Then using a sharp knife, pare away the tough green flesh from the base of the artichokes and the stem. Detach the trimmed stems and slice them into four lengthways. Cut the trimmed artichoke globes into eight wedges. Drop the wedges and stems of artichoke into a bowl of cold water acidulated with lemon.

Shell the fave and the peas. If the fave are large and have a tough outer coat remove it by plunging the fave in first hot water, then cold and then squeezing/pinching off the opaque coat. Thinly slice the spring onion.

Warm the olive oil in a heavy bottomed saute pan or enamelled cast iron pot. Saute the sliced onion over a medium heat until it is soft and translucent. Add the artichoke wedges and stems, stir well so each piece is glistening with oil. Add the wine and a pinch of salt, stir again and then cover the pan. Cook the onion and artichokes for 15 minutes, stirring and jigging the pan from time to time. Add the peas and fave, stir, re-cover the pan and cook for another few minutes. Taste, season with salt and taste again. The vignarola is ready when the vegetables are tender and the stew had come together into a soft, moist, tumbling whole.

Let the vignarola settle for a few minutes then serve just warm. It is also good at room temperature.

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Filed under antipasti, artichokes, food, In praise of, Roman food, spring recipes, vegetables

By eye not rule

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Since my late teens I’ve kept a kitchen notebook. It would be nice to tell you that these notebooks: a well-worn but pleasing collection of soft volumes sit cheek by jowl on my bookcase, that it’s a collection I treasure and refer to daily. They aren’t, they don’t and therefore I can’t. For apart from the five most recent notebooks and a green diary from 1997, my motley crew of dog-eared loose-leaf pads and leather effect WH Smith jotters have either been lost in migration or languish – damp and curling at the edges – in my parents garage. There are also six years worth of Italian notebooks getting dusty in a box at Vincenzo’s. So much unfinished business! But now’s not the time to talk about that.

I’ve mixed feelings about the 16 years worth of notebooks curling in England! Which is why, despite weary pleas from my parents and countless opportunities, they remain exactly where they are. For amongst the recipes written, sellotaped and glued to the pages, descriptions of meals eaten, brief notes about stove successes and long laments about kitchen failures, the to make lists and meticulous plans for suppers that may or may not have happened, is a painful (and tedious) account of my then life in food.

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Exuberantly documented periods of feast are all too often followed by tiresome accounts of restraint and abstinence. A pleasant seasonal list or carefully copied quote is probably followed by a raging diatribe about loathing food or myself for eating it. A fanfare to fruit cake is stifled by an ode to fasting. Twelve (very slim) notebooks dated from 2002 to 2004 chart – in painfully neat handwriting –  a joyless weighed and measured routine I’d rather forget. Notes about expansive meals are almost always followed by so much self-flagellation and malcontent it’s exhausting. Fad’s, fantastical allergies and fernickerty disordered eating is well documented.  Lost, forgotten, abandoned and curled. Quite right too.

Well almost. There were gems amongst the goulash of angst and self-flagellation. Real gems. Some of which I pulled, ripped and unstuck a couple of summers ago while sorting through the damp boxes. A series of recipes snipped from the Guardian in the late 90’s, handwritten recipes by Granny Alice and Grandma Phyllis, illustrated recipes for three almonds cakes from my Spanish neighbour, a pile of 1940’s pamphlets about herbs, three A4 pages of recipes from my time in India and the green notebook from 1997, they are all sitting here on my red table.

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And so the green notebook. The one I kept whilst living in Camden Town and going to drama school. An angst free notebook – I was, I note on more than one occasion, extremely happy – almost entirely given over to notes, thoughts and several comical accounts of making pasta. I wish I could remember what precipitated this rash of research, kneading and rolling? A dinner? A book? A friend?  It wasn’t a trip to Italy or a man. I wish I could remember from where I copied the most bizarre pasta making advice. I suppose it doesn’t matter. Whatever or wherever, in the spring of 1997, when living in the small but well proportioned North London flat, the sound of evening trains through Camden cutting, I became temporarily obsessed with making pasta. I remember nothing about eating this pasta. I clearly did though! On many occasions, all of which are duly noted: Needs work! Dry dry dry! Rather hard and slightly indigestable! Try another flour!

Sixteen years later, in a small but well proportioned flat in South Rome, the green notebook – although providing entertainment – has been absolutely no help whatsoever in my latest attempt to learn to make pasta. Well except for one note that is. A note I’ve been given more times than I care to remember during my cooking life, and not only regarding pasta – by eye not rule.

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By eye not rule. Of course there are rules, like using best semolina flour, working on a clean dry surface and adding a whole egg to the flour before adding the cold water when making cavatelli pasta. ‘It’s an unconventional egg‘ my teacher Daria noted while working the yellow yolk expertly into the equally yellow flour ‘As cavatelli pasta is traditionally made just semolina flour and water.’ An egg however – a trick taught to her by her mother – wether working with 200 g or a kilo of flour helps with manageability and elasticity.

Once you have worked the egg into the flour you can start adding the water, little by little, by eye not rule. Time of year, temperature of your kitchen, the flour, the size of your egg, your mood, your husband’s mood, these variables will all affect the quantity of water you use. Which bring us neatly to Daria’s second piece of advice.: practica (practice.) You can only learn and truly understand how much water is required to bring the ingredients together into a soft, putty-like-dough by practicing.

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Our lesson took place a few weeks ago. Cavatelli is a traditional curled pasta shape from Daria’s home town in Puglia,where it’s also known as capunti. Having made a dough from grano duro (semolina flour), the unconventional egg and enough water, Daria taught me to knead. Did I mention how much I like being taught these days, I’m not sure where proud I-don’t-need-lessons Rachel has disappeared to. The heel of your palm does most of the work: pushing the dough forward, folding it in half, turning and pressing again. You should knead for about 8 minutes – again eye not rule – until the dough is smooth and soft as putty.

Cutting and shaping the cavatelli is, despite appearances, pretty straightforward. You need to cut the dough into thick matchsticks. Daria did this by moulding the dough into a rough round, then cutting this round into first strips and then matchsticks. To shape the individual cavatelli  you place your well-floured index, middle and ring finger against the far edge of the matchstick and then roll/flick your fingers towards you so the dough curls into a long arc with three in-dents. At every stage of the shaping, cutting and forming Daria launched a blizzard of semolina flour over proceedings to stop the dough sticking.

While I finished shaping the cavatelli, a deeply satisfying task once you master the press and flick required, Daria cooked some cauliflower until unfashionably soft. Having lifted the tender florets from their cooking water (which she left for the pasta) she then sautéed the cauliflower in an even more unfashionable quantity of olive oil before mashing it gently with the back of the wooden spoon until it surrendered into a soft, creamy sauce. A pinch of salt and a handful of chopped dusty-brown olives – surly and salty ones from Gaeta – finished the sauce off nicely.

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I’d just like to pause and note how delicious well-cooked cauliflower ripassata in extra virgin olive oil, well salted and studded with olives is. This has been our lunch – give or take a piece of bread and lump of cheese – once a week since my lesson. Noted? Good! But back to the cavatelli. Under supervision I cooked the pasta in the cloudy cauliflower water. It took just minutes, the indented curls bobbing excitedly to the surface. Once cooked, the cavatelli was slotted-spooned into the cauliflower pan – a little of the pasta cooking water still clinging to the curls – stirred and served.

Now as you may or may not have noticed, I am very fond of vegetables – broccoli, crema di rapa, zucchini, broccoletti – that are cooked until extremely soft, turned in olive oil and then stirred into pasta. Such dishes have become a cornerstone of my diet and the saviour of my purse strings. This dish Cavatelli con cavolfiore e olive is my new favorite. The soft, somewhat shy sauce given courage by the feisty olives, collects in the curls and coats the tender pasta.

‘This is a good pasta for a complete beginner’ Daria noted. I felt myself bristle, the pride surge through my veins. ‘Well I’m not exactly a beginner.’ I was about to splutter.’ I’ve lived in Italy for 8 years now and I’ve been making pasta since 1997.’  Then I remembered. ‘Yes it is.’ I agreed while noting notes in my scruffy but almost angst free notebook. ‘It’s a perfect pasta for a beginner.’

Serve by eye not rule.

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Cavatelli con cavolfiore e olive  Cavatelli pasta with cauliflower and olives

Enough for 4

  • 400 g farina di garno duro (semola)
  • 1 medium egg
  • a pinch of salt
  • filtered water – enough
  • 1 medium-sized cauliflower
  • Extra virgin olive oil – plenty
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled and gently squashed with the back of a knife
  • a handful of coarsely chopped black olives
  • salt – enough
  • black pepper – enough

Pour the flour into a mound on the work surface and scoop a deep hollow in the center. Sprinkle over a pinch of salt. Break  the egg into the hollow and then using your fingers beak the yolk and start working the egg into the flour. Now add a little water and continue working the liquid into the dough. Keep adding water until you have a smoothly integrated mixture.

Knead the dough, pushing it forward with the heel of your palm. Fold the dough in half, give it a half turn and press it hard against the heel of your palm again. Knead for a full eight minutes by which time the dough should be smooth and soft as putty.

Divide the dough into quarters. Roll, mould and pat one-quarter into a circle about 5 ml thick. Cut the square into strips about 3 cm wide. Cut the strip into match sticks about 3 mm wide. The end epic of the circle which are too small can be set aside and worked back into the rest of the dough.

Work on  a well floored board. Position your well-floured index, middle and ring finger against the far edge of the dough matchstick and then roll/flick your fingers towards you so he dough curls onto a long arc with three in-dents. Move the cavatelli curl onto a tray or sheet dusted with semolina flour.

Break the cauliflower into large florets. Bring a large pan of well salted water to a fast boil and the cook the florets for about 1o minutes or until they are soft and very tender.

Use a slotted spoon to lift the cauliflower out of the pan and into a colander to drain. In a saute pan warm the oil and then gently fry the garlic until it is golden and fragrant. Do not let it burn. Remove the garlic and then add the cauliflower and olives. Stir well so both are coated with oil and gently mash the cauliflower with the back of the wooden spoon until you have a soft, creamy mixture. Add more oil if necessary. Turn of the heat

Cook the pasta in the cauliflower water until al dente which will only take a few minutes. Drain the pasta – reserving some cooking water – and add it to the pan. Stir. Add a little cooking water to loosen and emulsify the dish if necessary. Serve immediately.

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Filed under food, pasta and rice, rachel eats Italy, Rachel's Diary, recipes, supper dishes, vegetables

Takes me back

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At first at didn’t miss England at all. Quite the opposite in fact. For almost six and a half years I was happily engulfed by alternating waves of relief that I’d left (excuse me: fled) and contentment at my new (chaotic, often unfeasible and unexpected) Roman life. Then about a year and a half ago I was struck by a bolt(s) of missing. The list is predictable and clichéd I’m afraid: lawns like green baize, orderly queues, doors held open, brusque but cheery Goodmornings and Pardon mes, The Royal Mail, London Underground, John Lewis, BBC, ironic asides, Hackney cabs, well swept pavements, The Guardian Newspaper, eccentric and slightly inappropriate clothing, women going to work on the bus with damp hair. And the food! I was almost overwhelmed by waves of longing for glorious British food. Food that I’d spurned – somewhat disdainfully – in favour of glorious Italian food. But that’s another paragraph.

The problem with the missing was two-fold. First there was the missing itself – which felt a little like the hollow yawn in your stomach when you’re hungry or a persistent nagging sensation that something’s wrong  – and then there were the comparisons that inevitably accompany ‘missing’.  Now I think you know how much I truly, madly, deeply like my adopted city, but that period of missing and comparison was bloody hard. Longing for green lawns made Rome seem parched. Nostalgia for orderly queues accentuated the apparent inability of Romans to form any sort of even vaguely civil line. The metro seemed infuriatingly inefficient and Italian TV shockingly deficient. I felt exasperated by Taxis, bad service, triple parking, litter strewn public spaces, lack of irony, the postal service, doors in my face and obsessive dedication to blow-drying.

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Maybe it’s a sign you should go back‘ suggested a Roman acquaintance I shouldn’t have bothered confiding in. An acquaintance who then took umbrage at my suggestion Romans lack a sense of irony before proving my point by launching into a diatribe about cervicale and the merits of of blow-drying. ‘Maybe it’s because you’ve really decided to stay?‘ Suggested another, wiser Roman friend. She was right, the missing struck at exactly the same time circumstances in my life: an unexpected job with nice prospects at Teatro Verde, my writing, a man, confirmation of my official residenza in Rome and a half Italian baby growing inside me collided with my truly, madly, deeply. It was clear I was going to stay.

Of course you miss things about England‘ she reassured me before ordering another espresso. ‘It’s perfectly normal and damn healthy‘ She added while ripping and tipping the bag of sugar into her tiny cup and stirring an extraordinary number of times. ‘What do you English say: the grass is greener?’ She added while positioning her teaspoon back on her saucer. ‘It’s also healthy you’re finally seeing the deep, raging flaws in Rome and Romans‘ She noted before tossing back her hair, head and espresso. ‘Seeing the flaws and yet still wanting to stay!’  She paused. ‘You do need a good, long holiday in London to see what you are and aren’t missing though.’

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Of course it wasn’t quite as simple as that. But nearly. I’d been back countless times during the previous six years but that trip back about eighteen months ago, a trip full of missing, longing, a baby and guided by the words of my friend was different. I spent two weeks in England. Fourteen days in which I very consciously sought out and savored all the things I pined for: soft green lawns, orderly queues, even pavements, high quality costume drama, dirty low-brow comedy, The British Museum, Baker St station, Regents Park, Bloomsbury, Kew Gardens, Tate Modern, Propers pubs, Daunt Books and Boots the chemist. And I ate, for two: smoked fish, pork pies, icy white celery, Neals yard cheese, Sunday lunch, watercress, fruit fools, horseradish sauce, custard tarts, gooseberries, back bacon, pork chops, and cheeky fat sausages, raspberries, clotted cream, english peas and afternoon teas.

Then still acting on good advice from a my friend, I started noticing the things I didn’t miss about England – another predictable and clichéd list I’m afraid and one I will keep to myself – and quietly observing some of the things that led me to flee. I also noted the things, dozens and dozens of things, I missed about Rome! Rome my home.

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I’ve just spent another two weeks in England, it was long overdue and it was good to be back. There were generous doses of people and things I miss. There was also rather more of the things I don’t miss than anticipated! Which is fine, it’s good to be reminded. I also ate, cooked and shared plenty of really good English food, (and some not so good, but that’s fine, it’s good to be reminded.) One particularly nice, low-key supper was cooked by my mum last Monday.

Dad and I had been to Magic Voices, which is – and I quote – ‘a contemporary choir created by renowned Musical Director, Andy Rumble.’ It was the singularly most bizarre and joyful evening of my visit. Singing it seems, suits me. Happy, harmonized and humming ‘Bring him Home’ we arrived home to a blazing fire – gas I hasten to add, but blazing no less -and  mum bearing three glasses of Hugel Riesling and one of my favourite suppers waiting patiently on the AGA:, a truly, deeply good and nostalgic supper: Cauliflower cheese.

Now I imagine we are all well acquainted with cauliflower cheese! But just case you aren’t! Let me introduce you? Cauliflower florets are boiled until tender in well-salted water, arranged in a well-buttered baking dish, covered with a fearless quantity of well-made white sauce (béchamel) that has been enriched (even further) with cheese. The smooth glossy sauce is topped with breadcrumbs and more grated cheese and then baked until golden, blistered and bubbling at the edges. Well, well, well  it’s just delicious.

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I made it again two days later for lunch with Dad, my sister Rosie, nieces Beattie and Freya and my bonny and extremely dramatic son. I took time over the white sauce, infusing the milk with a bay leaf and a clove studded onion and then letting the it bubble and burp away contentedly for a good half hour. It was worth it. I remembered that when we were little my Mum sometimes scattered a tin of butter beans over the cauliflower florets. It’s an addition I can highly recommend: the soft, plump and nutty beans making the dish even more pleasing and substantial. Now about the cheese, most cheddar works well, but best of all is a mix of strong English cheddar and bold piquant Italian parmesan. Strong English and piquant Italian, ah yes, I know it well!  Remember, be generous with the salt and pepper.

I boiled some Curly Kale. Once it was tender but still as resistant as I am to life on a Monday Morning (quite), I drained it and tossed it with butter and coarse salt. It made a good, green and toothsome companion to an otherwise very beige lunch. I had a dollop of mango chutney beside my cauliflower cheese! Strange I know, but very nice.

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Cauliflower cheese

Adapted From Jane Grigson’s recipes in English Food and The Vegetable Book.

  • a large cauliflower
  • 700 ml whole milk
  • a bay leaf
  • a small onion peeled and studded with three cloves
  • 50 g butter
  • 50g plain flour
  • 50 g strong cheddar
  • 50 g parmesan
  • a tin of butter beans (drained)
  • breadcrumbs
  • more butter for dotting

Set the oven to 200°

In a small pan bring the milk, bay leaf and onion studded with cloves slowly to the boil. As soon as the milk starts to rise in the pan, turn it off and leave it to sit and infuse for 15 minutes.

Melt the butter in a heavy pan, stir in the flour and cook to a roux ( a sticky paste that comes away from the sides of the pan) for two minutes, without browning.  Remove the bay leaf and onion and then over a very low flame pour the milk gradually into the roux whisking constantly. Raise the heat a little and bring the sauce to simmering point, whisking until the sauce thickens to the consistency of thick double cream. Turn down the heat and let the sauce simmer gently for twenty minutes. Stir in all but a small handful of the grated cheese, taste and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper

Break the cauliflower into large florets. Bring a large pan of well salted water to a rolling boil and then drop in the florets. Boil the florets for about 5 – 8 minutes or until they are tender to the point of a knife. Drain the florets carefully so as not to break them. Arrange the florets in a baking dish, scatter over the drained butter beans, pour over the cheese sauce and dust the surface with breadcrumbs, the remaining cheese and a few dots of butter.

Bake for twenty minutes or so or until the surface is blistered and golden and the sauce is bubbling at the edges.

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Filed under cauliflower, food, Rachel's Diary, recipes, supper dishes, vegetables, winter recipes

Just right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tomato and bread soup Pappa al pomodoro

From My Berlin Kitchen by Luisa Weiss

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

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

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

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

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

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

My notes.

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

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

Splendid spears

Lately I’ve been eating asparagus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Risotto con gli asparagi    Asparagus Risotto

Adapted from Marcella Hazan’s recipe

serves 4

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

Prepare the asparagus:

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

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

The Other Half.

Always one for too much of a good thing, I was tempted to make another batch of gnocchi with the remaining half of my green mound. An absence of ricotta put an end to that idea. An absence of milk nearly put paid to my second spinach plan – a savory courgette and spinach cake – until I remembered the small stout carton of cream sitting, squatting really between the Campari and the Tanqueray in the door of the fridge. Surely something made with milk would be even nicer if made with cream? It is! But I will come to that presently.

The spinach and courgette cake I was plotting was to be a variation on David Tanis’s very good, very green spinach cake. Now the first time I made this spinach cake, it was rather disappointing. This had everything to do with a misreading of the recipe and my distracted, careless, scurrying execution of said cake and nothing to do with David Tanis’s recipe. Having learned my lesson, I made it a second time, reading diligently, sautéing attentively, seasoning the green batter generously, adjusting cooking times to compensate for my oven and keeping a watchful eye as my cake puffed up proudly in oven. My reward was, as promised, a quite lovely green round.

Like the song in which a love-sick teenager finds truth and solace, spinach cake was on heavy rotation for a while – I’m not sure why I didn’t tell you about it here – and I soon discovered that you can indeed have too much of a good thing. Fortunately neither of us wanted things to turn nasty, so we agreed not to see each other for a while. Then last summer when we were all gathered  in Branscombe for the week of my best friend Joanna’s wedding, Joanna’s mum Rosamund made a delicious starter one evening, a pale green, delicate bake which seemed very like a slightly softer, creamier relative of my spinach cake, but made with courgettes. Nostalgia was felt, plans hatched and notes were scribbled.

As usual, I dragged my cooking heels and it wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago, in possession of a half mound of spinach (of which I used only half, the post about the final quarter is still to come) that I finally deciphered my notes about Ros’s dish, grabbed two courgettes, a handsome leek and half a pint of cream and set about making a spinach and courgette cake.

As with David’s Tanis’s recipe, I began by softening leek in little oil and butter over a medium flame. Once the leek was suitably soft, I added rounds of courgette, nudged them around the pan until they were nicely coated with oil and butter before adding a little water, lowering the flame and then letting the leeks and courgettes to bubble and cook gently – half frying/ half braising, for about 15 minutes or until all the liquid has evaporated the courgettes were tender and collapsing. Then I left the green panful to cool.

My spinach (as you know) was already cooked and well-drained (I repeat, water is the enemy) so once the courgette and leeks were cool and transferred to a bowl I added my pile of chopped spinach. Then using my trusty immersion blender, I blitzed the vegetables into a smooth green paste that begged both to be tasted and smeared upon my face. I resisted smearing and simply tasted before adding 5 eggs, cream, grated parmesan, a good grating of nutmeg, an equally good grinding of black pepper and a flick of salt. As I poured the pale creamy- green batter into my reliable non-stick pan I made a mental note  ‘This is the colour I’d like to paint the living room‘ before maneuvering the pan into the oven for about 25 minutes in which time the batter set and puffed gently into a very green cake.

I let the cake settle and cool for a while before cutting it into wedges and serving it with sliced tomatoes – the deeply ribbed ones with thick skins and sweet spicy flesh – and Roscioli bread.

I know I’m courgette biased, but they lend something lovely to this green cake, complimenting the deeply satisfying flavor of the spinach. Tanis’s recipe calls for milk! Cream, as you can probably imagine is another thing entirely, it’s a perfect foil for the green grassy vegetables. The cake is creamier obviously, deeply dairy, luscious and luxurious,. In using cream though, the nutmeg – maybe my favorite spice – becomes even more important, as not only does it perk up the greens no end, but cuts through the dairy, making it less cloying.

I think the cake really does need to rest for at least 40 minutes (and up to 5 hours) after coming out of the oven so it can firm up a little and it’s flavors settle. It is a most delicious wedge, the happy collision of a frittata (which is, as you probably know, an Italian open-faced omelette), a soufflé, a mousse and a savory custard. Lunch.

Last thing, regarding cooking times. David Tanis suggests 40 minutes at 200° for for his spinach cake. In my oven I found this too hot and too long for such a delicate egg and dairy laced thing. I find that 25 minutes or so at 170°is about right so your cake is  gently puffed up and set, but still tender and with a very slight wobble. I love a slight wobble.

Last last thing, a well buttered dish/pie plate will do but a non-stick ovenproof 12″/24cm frying pan is best (I find.)

Spinach and courgette cake

Inspired by Rosamund’s recipe and adapted liberally from David Tanis’s recipe in a Platter of figs – I can’t seem to find a site for the publisher and I am boycotting bloody monopolizing amazon, so please excuse the lack of a link.

Serves 4 as lunch, 8 as a starter.

  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 30g butter
  • 1 medium-sized leek
  • 2 medium courgettes
  • salt
  • 100ml white wine/water
  • 300 g spinach
  • 5 eggs
  • 250 ml fresh cream
  • 50 g grated parmesan
  • freshly grated nutmeg
  • black pepper
Preheat the oven to 170°
 .
Trim the leek and peel off the tough outer layer. Cut the leek into small dice, fill a bowl with water and add the leeks. Agitate the leeks with your hand. Let the dirt and sand settle in the bowl and then scoop the leeks from the water and pat the dry in a clean tea towel. Warm the oil and butter in a heavy based frying pan and then sauté the leek until it is soft and translucent.
 .
Top and tail the courgettes and then slice them into 1/2cm thick rounds. Add the courgette to the leek and stir so each round is well coated with butter.
 .
After a few minutes, raise the heat a little and add the wine/water. Allow it to bubble enthusiastically. Now reduce the heat again and allow the onion and courgettes to bubble and cook gently – half frying/ half braising, giving a stir and nudge every now and then and adding a little more water if the pan looks dry – for about 15 minutes or until the courgettes are very soft tender and collapsing and all the liquid has evaporated. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside to cool.
 .
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 low flame until the spinach has collapsed and is tender. This should take about 2 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 cooled leek/ courgette mixture to the spinach and then using a hand blender blitz the mixture into a smooth green paste.

Add the cream and eggs to the bowl and blitz again before stirring in the parmesan, a grating of nutmeg, salt and black pepper.

Pour the batter into in ovenproof sauté pan, buttered baking dish or 10-12 inch deep-pie dish and then slide into the oven. Bake uncovered for 30 minutes or until the cake is set but still with a slight tremble/wobble at the center.

Allow the cake to sit, cool and settle for at least 40 minutes before serving in wedges.

I really should learn to not make promises I can’t keep! I apologise, It’s the optimist in me, she’s extremely unrealistic sometimes. A promise I am trying to keep though, is not inflicting too much babyboringness on you all! However as I write about what I’m cooking and eating, and now that Luca is my prefered lunch date, it feels appropriate to mention that alongside breastfeeding (we have surprised ourselves, we are total enthusiasts, quite boring proponents and in it for for the long haul) he’s started eating some proper food. Neither of us could face those purees and all that spoon-feeding and so following in the footsteps of my sister Rosie and my niece Beattie and properly inspired by this brilliant book and site we are having a lot of extremely messy fun

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Filed under antipasti, courgettes, cream, Eggs, food, picnics, Rachel's Diary, recipes, spinach, spring recipes, vegetables