Category Archives: vegetables

A bag of green.

When buying spinach‘ Jane Grigson reminds us ‘Assess its liveliness, it should have a bouncing, bright appearance‘ and ‘As you stuff it into your bag or basket it should crunch and squeak’

The spinach above, a generous kilo procured from my trusted fruttivendolo Vincenzo, would have pleased Jane Grigson I think, dark forest green, crimped of leaf, plump stemmed, bright and bouncy. Misbehaving and uncooperative, it squeaked and squealed as I squashed it into the bag, an experience not dissimilar to dressing my 7 month old.

Having picked over my green bagful, I gave it a good soak in a sinkful of cold water and then an overenthusiastic rinse before wrestling it, water still clinging to the leaves, into my biggest, heaviest pot – my orange le creuset – disciplining it with the equally heavy lid and putting it over a modest flame.

I never cease to be impressed by the way spinach, if cooked in a heavy pan over a modest flame with no more water than that which still clings to its leaves after a good wash, wilts and collapses into such a neat, obedient pile.

Having admired, washed, wilted and carefully drained your spinach (wateriness is the enemy) the possibilities for your green ball are countless. As a rule I like my spinach with extra virgin olive oil, salt and a squeeze of lemon. I’m also very fond of  wilted spinach reheated with a very very large knob of butter (spinach, like me, absorbs massive quantities of butter and becomes all the more delicious for doing so). I then eat my extremely buttery greens with grilled meat or piled on toast and topped with a poached egg and – if I’m feeling frisky – some hollandaise.

This week however, or last week by the time I post this, I cut my ball in two (later three) and made three green meals: spinach and ricotta gnocchi, a very green pie and a (splendid) tart.

I’ve decided to risk spinach saturation as I think all three green recipes: gnocchi, pie and tart, deserve their own post. I don’t intend to drag things out too much though, a spinach stampede is the plan, all three posts this week! Optimistic and unrealistic am I! We will see. First the gnocchi.

Gnocchi as you know ‘Are little dumplings.” Literally translated, gnoccho means little lump – rather like the one that appears when you bash your head on the kitchen cabinet that needs fixing – so the plural, gnocchi means little lumps. Italians make the most delicious and delightful little lumps, especially from potatoes, sometimes breadcrumbs, semolina or vegetables and they often flavour them with herbs and cheese. Gnocchi are cooked like pasta, but very gently, in plenty of boiling water and then dressed with the appropriate sauce or simply lots and lots of sage infused melted butter.’

Spinach and ricotta gnocchi are, as their name suggests, little dumplings made from spinach and ricotta bound with eggs, parmesan, spiked with nutmeg and dusted with just enough flour to mould them into shape. I’ve written about spinach and ricotta gnocchi before, a recipe that I’ve known and trusted for years. But a couple of weeks ago my friend and cooking companion Alice showed me how she makes gnocchi, a version she learned from Lizzie Cinati at the Winterhaven in Falls Creek. At first glance Alice’s recipe not so very different from the recipe I have made mine! But look closely and you’ll notice very different proportions, an omission, a couple of tweaks and some sage advice about shape and cooking which produces the best spinach and ricotta gnocchi I have ever eaten. I have eaten many.

Alice’s recipe uses the same quantity of ricotta as spinach, so 500g of spinach is mixed with an impressive 500g of ricotta. There is no sautéed onion, just a whole egg, a tablespoon of flour, 100g of grated parmesan and a generous grating of nutmeg to be mixed with the speckled green cream. You let the mixture chill for a couple for hours and then as lunchtime approaches you enlist the help of a fellow gnocchi maker (and a glass of campari on ice) as it’s best if you work swiftly and cook the gnocchi as soon as you possibly can.

The mixture is extremely soft, sticky and seemingly uncontrollable! Have no fear and resist adding more flour. Well floured hands, patience and practice and you will find a way to mould and shape the mixture into imprecise lozenges roughly the size of a brazil nut. There are two ways to work. Either using two teaspoons to form the mixture into lozenges and then rolling them immediately in flour. Alternatively you can dust your work-suface with flour, scoop out a generous handful of pale green mixture and with very well- floured hands roll it into a log, flatten it slightly and then cut the log into slices before tweaking the shape of each slice into the requisite form. Sit the gnocchi on a tray dusted with flour.

To cook the gnocchi you bring a large pan of well salted water to a very gentle boil. Carefully drop 12 gnocchi at a time into the water. After a few minutes they will be puffy, proud as punch, soft and have bobbed to the surface. Using a slotted spoon lift them out onto a warm serving plate and pour over some of the sage butter and keep warm in a cool oven. Drop in more gnocchi and repeat the process. When all the gnocchi are cooked, pour over the rest of the sage butter, turn them gently to coat with butter and serve at once with more freshly grated parmesan

I needed no convincing about spinach and ricotta gnocchi, 12 or 14 freshly poached morsels, like green speckled pillows sitting in a pool of sage butter and dusted with parmesan, were already amongst my favorite things to eat. This recipe which produces some of the lightest, plumpest, most delicate and softly textured gnocchi I have ever eaten has simply fortified that conviction and nudged spinach and ricotta gnocchi even higher up my list. The key I think is the impressive quality of ricotta, the whisper of flour, the pleasing shape and reminder about cooking as soon as you can after making your gnocchi.

One of the nicest ways to eat your greens.

Gnocchi are usually eaten as a primo piatto (first course) but they make a fine main course especially if served with a sliced tomato salad, piedmontese peppers and some nice bread to mop up the sage butter. It is worth seeking out the best ricotta – ideally Ricotta di pecora (sheeps milk ricotta).

Spinach and Ricotta gnocchi

serves 4 (6 at push but who likes to push!)

  • 5oog / 1 lb fresh spinach
  • 500g / 1 llb ricotta
  • large egg
  • 100g freshly grated parmesan
  • 1 tbsp flour and more for dusting
  • a grating of nutmeg
  • salt
For the sage butter
  • 100g best butter
  • 10 fresh sage leaves

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 the egg, the grated parmesan,   flour and a grating of nutmeg. Keep stirring the ingredients until they are evenly mixed, taste, add salt if necessary, stir again. Let the mixture rest in the fridge for a couple of hours.

Dust your hands and a work surface with flour and working quickly shape the gnocchi into lozenges the size of a brazil nut and sit them on a tray dusted with flour.

Bring a large pan a well salted water to a gentle boil, not too hard or the gnocchi will disintegrate.

Put the butter in a small frying pan and turn the heat to medium. When the butter stops foaming and it starts turning tawny but not brown, add the sage leaves. Cook for a few seconds, turning the leaves once and then remove from the heat

Now begin cooking the gnocchi. Carefully drop 12 gnocchi at a time into the gently boiling water. After a few minutes they will be puffy, soft and have floated to the surface. Using a with slotted spoon lift them out onto a warm serving plate and pour over some of the sage butter and keep warm in a cool oven. Drop in more gnocchi and repeat the process.

When all the gnocchi are cooked, pour over the rest of the sauce, turn them gently to coat with butter and serve at once with more freshly grated parmesan.

‘A bag of green – the second half’ coming soon.

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Filed under food, gnocchi, rachel eats Italy, ricotta, spinach, spring recipes, vegetables

Soup baby

In January last year, two important things happened. Firstly I discovered I was pregnant and secondly, I began spending my Sundays with Mona.

I’d first met Mona a couple of years before. My friend and marvelous ice cream maker Kitty was doing an internship at the American Academy where Mona, guided by Alice Waters, had established the Rome Sustainable Food Project, a program dedicated to slow food principles and to providing local, organic and sustainable meals for the community at the Academy. Kitty invited me for dinner and I, of course, accepted.

That first meal at the Academy made striking and lasting impression. Firstly because of the place, The Academy itself, whose arresting buildings with their courtyards, fountains and gracefully maintained gardens sit proudly atop the Janiculum Hill. Buildings and gardens I had passed curiously every week on my way to teach at the elementary school. Then there were the people, Academy fellows, scholars, artists and other clever looking folk with their families and guests all sitting round communal tables in the dining room. At first glance it appeared one of the more intimidating gatherings of my life – the kind in which I usually transform into walking social gaffe, develop a speech impediment, facial rash and fall over –  but in reality it was one of the nicest. And then of course their was the food. We ate Spaghetti with fennel, pine nuts and breadcrumbs, roast pork with carrots and turnips, a green salad, and for dessert, panna cotta with a ruby colored grape syrup and little biscuits. Food inspired by la cucina romana, Chez Panisse, and the collective experience of the cooks and interns in the Academy kitchen, it was – as the project intended – seasonal, simple, elegant, delicious, and nourishing.

Kitty’s tales of life at the Academy, the RSFP project and the extraordinary Mona had already engaged me. By end of the dinner, deliciously sated and both blithe and bold from the copious red wine and a very nice herby Amaro at the Academy bar, I was convinced: I would apply for a 3 month internship. My speech impediment and facial rash threatened to flare as I thanked and made rather clumsy compliments to Mona before jumping on my bike and careering down Via Garibaldi contemplating roast pork, panna cotta, cooking and arriving home in record red wine speed

Talking of bikes, over the next couple of years I’d often see Mona flying fearlessly, joyously and perilously around the narrow cobbled streets of Trastevere on her black bike. On each occasion I’d try, and fail, to flag her down and then I’d renew my vows to apply for the internship.  It took a return visit from Kitty to put an end to my procrastination and convince me to get in touch with Mona. Which I did. We met at one of the long tables set in the courtyard of the Academy and we talked about Rome, food, our mutual love of cicoria, Elizabeth David and writing. We talked about the RSFP and she promised she’d keep me in mind.

True to her word, she did, and a month or so later Mona sent me an E mail telling me that she was about to start work on the second book of recipes (the first is Biscotti) from The Academy kitchen. This one was to be about soup. She asked if I might be interested in helping her – an internship of sorts – with the initial stages of the book, assisting her while she tested recipes, started to put into words 50 of the RSFP soups and complied a comprehensive glossary. I, of course accepted.

Every Sunday morning I’d walk – and as the months passed waddle – up the winding Ginaicolo hill to the Academy, crunch my way across the gravel courtyard and enter the backdoor of the Academy kitchen. Mona was usually tapping quietly away at her laptop which she’d set up in front of the window overlooking the bass garden over when I arrived, already deep in soup thought and planning the days recipes. Some stock might be bubbling in anticipation on the stove, there were often bowls of beans or chickpeas that had been soaking patiently all night, and there were always crates of Bernabei’s glorious, vital vegetables waiting for attention. First we’d have coffee, maybe some moreishly good granola, then I’d take Mona’s place in front of the computer and she would begin making soup.

Let’s start with the Minestra di pomodoro e riso’ she would call across the kitchen.

Make a note of the ingredients, three medium yellow onions, two stalks of celery. Cut the onions and celery into small dice. Oh and maybe we should make a note for the glossary about soffritto.’

Then the sound of Mona’s neat rhythmic chopping and my rather less rhythmic, two-fingered, cack-handed typing. And so we worked, Mona cooking, me typing and sending recipes off to Mary-Pat or Lizzie for testing, stopping every now and then to watch closer, peer into a pan, pod peas or wash spinach. And then of course there was the tasting, for which we were often joined by an intern or Academy fellow irresistably called to the kitchen, the heart of the Academy. And so we’d sit, side by side, knees tucked under the work bench, looking out of the window, tasting, pondering, criticizing, praising bowl after bowl of soup.

And then there was the talking. While the soup bubbled we talked and talked. We talked about soup, about living in Rome, about cicoria, ceci and cotiche, we talked about my growing concern. You see Mona was one of the first people I told and she endured more pregnancy ruminating than is healthy. She is still, to this day, the person knows more about the whole complicated, messy but joyous situation than the rest of my friends put together and the person who sustained me most with her quiet sane wisdom. She also fed me and my growing soup baby, not only on Sundays but for much of the following week by sending me clattering and clinking back down the hill with vast mason jars filled with soup, bundles of biscotti and hunks of lariano bread.

A copy of Zuppe arrived in the post month, and as I’d hoped it’s – as I’d expected from Mona, Annie, Niki and the RSFP – a brilliant and perfectly formed little book; inspiring and straightforward, a book of quiet good taste. 50 recipes for soup from the Academy kitchen, the soups that are served from the large glazed terracotta zupppiera each lunchtime, soups inspired by the bold Roman cuisine, Bernabei’s vegetables, the spirit of Chez Panisse and the Academy community. For me they are the best kind of recipes, inviting and approachable, neither technique driven or complicated, recipes as good, honest and tasty as a bowl of Pasta e ceci on a blowy Tuesday in January.

I have many favorite recipes from the book: Pasta e ceci and Pasta e fagioli of course, Favata (dried fava bean and proscuitto soup), Passato di sedano rape (celery root soup), Minestra di lenticche riso e cicoria (lentil, rice and chicory soup) , Minestra piccante di carote (spicy carrot soup), Ribollita (twice boiled Tuscan bread soup), Zuppa di piselli e patate novelle (pea and new potato soup). But in the spirit of the RSFP, where each morning the interns begin their day by taking a thorough inventory of the fridge which informs the days lunch, I took an inventory of my own fridge and discovered that it not only needed taking in hand and giving a bloody good clean but contained all the ingredients for another of my favourites,  Zuppa di palate, cavolo verza and pancetta (potato, cabbage and bacon soup).

This was one of the soups Mona made on our first Soup Sunday. Even though I never doubted I would like it – a kind of soupy colcannon with possibly the worlds best flavoring; bacon – I remember being surprised at quite how delicious it was. It’s a simple and tasty soup, both savory and sweet from the onion and carrot, deeply flavored with bacon and bay leaves, given body by the collapsing potatoes and serious leafy depth from the limp and lovely cabbage. Given some nice bread and a lump of cheese I would happily eat this once a week for lunch.

It is – like most of the recipes in the  book – simple to make. You soften carrot and onion in olive oil and then add the pancetta (bacon) and continue coking until it has rendered its tasty fat. Next you add potatoes, bay leaves and water and cook until the potatoes are tender, Finally you add what seems like a mountain of cabbage and simmer for another fifteen minutes or so, or until the is cabbage too is tender. You season and serve with a drizzle of good olive oil and black pepper. .

The soup has a slightly Dickensian pottage look to it, a frugal simplicity that you might be tempted to tart up by adding stock, blending or adding and swirling. Don’t, the soup is prefect as it is, tasting as it should of potato, cabbage and bacon.  As always with such a simple soup, good ingredients that taste vitally as they should are fundamental.

Zuppa di patate, cavolo verza e pancetta

Potato, cabbage and bacon soup

From Zuppe by Mona Talbott

Serves 4 – 6

  • 2 large carrots
  • 1 medium yellow onion
  • 75g / 3 oz pancetta
  • 30 ml / 1 fl oz olive oil
  • salt
  • 750 g / 1 1/2 lb starchy potatoes
  • 2 bay leaves
  • small white or savoy cabbage
  • extra virgin olive oil and black pepper to serve

Peel and cut the carrots and onion  into small dice. Cut the pancetta into 1 cm /1/2 inch tiles.

Sweat the vegetables and pancetta in olive oil over a medium-low heat in a 6 litre /6 quart pot. Add a pinch of salt and continue cooking until the vegetables are tender and the pancetta has rendered it’s fat.

Peel and dice the potatoes into 2 cm/1 inch cubes. Add the potatoes and bay leaves to the cooked vegetables and stir well, coating the potatoes with the rendered fat. Add 2 litres/ 2 quarts of cold water. Bring to a boil dn then reduce to  simmer for 40 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Remove the outer leaves from the cabbage and then cut first in half and then into strips and finally 2 cm / 1 inch squares. Add the cabbage, a generous pinch off salt and another 0.5 litres / 0.5 quarts of water to he pot. Simmer for another 15 minutes or unit the cabbage is tender.

Remove the bay leaves, taste, re-season if necessary and serve with  drizzle of olive oil and a grind of black pepper.

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Filed under food, potatoes, recipes, soup, vegetables

7 years and lunch

It’s been seven years, almost to the day, since I absconded to Italy. Rash, wayward and troubling it may have been, but my departure in March 2005 was, and remains, one of the better decisions of my life. After all, if I hadn’t come to Italy I might never have discovered (that amongst other things) I like, with a certain passion, courgettes. Which are zucchini to many of you,  and indeed me after seven years. It wasn’t that I disliked zucchini before arriving in Italy! Dislike suggests strong feelings, judgment and an opinion, whereas my feelings about the tubular baby marrow Cucurbita pepo were – like football, most gadgets, inner soles and Celine Dion – those of indifference.

I’d spied vast, tumbling heaps of zucchini most a familiar forest green either shaped like baby zeppelins or stout grenades, some bright yellow, others golden, many a seductive pale green – at markets on my chaotic travels round southern Italy and Sicily, most notably at the notorious and fascinating La Vuccaria market in Palermo. But it wasn’t until I arrived in Rome, settled comfortably in Testaccio and began going to the Market each day that I really took note, particularly the striking zucchine romanesche.

Zucchine romanesche are pale creamy-green mottled with white. They are slim, elegant things that often curve this way and that and are fluted like the Corinthian columns inside the Pantheon. If they are properly fresh they come crowned with a golden headdress, a fragile, rich-yellow flame-like flower.  Their creamy white flesh is compact with tiny seeds, sweetly tender, seemingly the collision of a good cucumber, the sweet stem of brocoli, a piece of pumpkin and yellow melon. When cooked, the flesh is even more delicious, tender, sweet – but undeniably savory – and beguilingly creamy.

My zucchini indifference was short-lived once I settled in Rome. Romans prize their zucchini especially zucchine romanesche and do marvelous things with them. Cut into rounds, slices, diced or grated they are sautéed lightly in olive oil until tender and served just so or used as a sauce for pasta. Fat match sticks of zucchini are dipped in batter or flour and then fried until tantalizingly crisp in hot oil and served like potato chips in waxed paper bags, a clandestine snack best eaten with your fingers: soon shiny with oil, while walking in the sun along via Galvani. Zucchini are grilled, baked, braised, make a fitting filling for a frittata or ideal ingredient in risotto. Long thin strips are roasted and charred on a griddle pan then left to lounge in olive oil with fresh basil leaves before being served as an antipasti.

At many of our lunches at Volpetti Alice and I have eaten zucchini stewed gently with fresh tomatoes and basil, mopping up the juices with crusty bread. Left whole, zucchini are stuffed with seasoned meat or breadcrumbs and then baked, or better still,  braised in tomato sauce. Small, particularly tender specimens are boiled or steamed and then served with good olive oil, salt and maybe a little lemon juice or sliced as thin as paper and the tucked in warm pizza bianca with mozzarella. Thinly sliced zucchini are also dressed with oil and lemon and served as a salad. And then there are the flowers, i fiori di zucca. I fell for the flowers first, beautiful to look upon but even better to eat: torn into a salad, snipped into an omelette, stuffed with ricotta or best of all, with mozzarella and anchovy, dipped in batter and then fried until crisp and golden in very hot oil and eaten while tongue scaldingly hot with a glass of prosecco.

Having fallen for its charms, I took to cooking zucchini with a degree of over enthusiasm which is well documented here, in a kind of cabonara, Fusilli with courgettes,  Frittata, Fiori di zucca, and now this Pasta con salsa di zucchini e pancetta – Pasta with courgette sauce and bacon. A particularly clumsy name in English I know, but don’t let that deter you.

This recipe has much in common with both Fusilli with courgettes and another of my favorites, a weekly lunch and fixed point in my otherwise chaotic routine: pasta e broccoli. Like broccoli, zucchini when cooked until extremely tender in garlic infused olive oil – collapse, and with a little assistance from a fork, potato masher or cautious blitz with an immersion blender, create a soft creamy sauce for the pasta. This sauce also happens to be my favorite colour.

I am very happy to eat my pasta wearing just a green coat. The pasta that is, not me, unfortunately I don’t possess a green coat. But lunch is even more delicious when the green sauce is dotted with some diced pancetta or prosciutto that has been fried until tantalizingly crisp: the salty pork giving a kick to the good but undeniably mild and gentle (arguably insipid if not seasoned correctly) zucchini sauce.

This recipe, like so many of the nicest everyday pastas is pleasingly straightforward to make, but depends on good ingredients: nice olive oil, plump garlic and young, fresh zucchini are key. You could, as with pasta and broccoli, boil or steam the zucchini until soft, drain them and then finish them off in a frying pan with olive oil and garlic before mashing them. However as zucchini have a tendency to become water-logged and soggy especially when boiled, I think it’s best that you cook the zucchini in a frying pan, first with oil and butter before adding a little wine and water, This way the zucchini half fry/half braise and by the end of the cooking time are beautifully tender and much of the excess water has evaporated away.

I use an immersion blender – cautiously – to reduce the zucchini to a creamy sauce, but if you prefer a coarser more textured sauce I suggest using a fork. Is there anything else I need to tell you? Probably, but this post is already far too long for such a simple recipe and my son is eating the computer cable.

True to the Oxford English dictionary, my roots and as so as not to confuse my brother, I have referred to zucchini as courgettes in the recipe below. Best served with a glass of white wine obviously.

Pasta con salsa di zucchini e pancetta

Pasta with Courgettes and bacon

Serves 4

  • 6 medium / 9 small young, fresh, firm courgettes (about 800g)
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • A small knob of butter
  • salt
  • 100 ml white wine
  • 100ml water
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 100g pancetta or bacon
  • 500g spaghetti, penne, fusilli or pappardelle
Wash the courgettes thoroughly in cold water. Drain them, trim away both ends (saving the flowers!) and cut the courgettes into  rounds a little less than a cm thick and pat them dry.
Warm the oil and butter in a heavy based frying pan over a medium-low flame. Peel the garlic then squash each clove with back of a knife, add to the frying pan and sauté gently until the garlic is fragrant and just – but only just – starting to colour. Add the courgettes and a pinch of salt to the pan, moving and turning them so each piece is coated with oil and butter.
After a few minutes, raise the heat a little and add the wine. Allow it to sizzle and evaporate a little before adding the water. Now reduce the heat again and allow the courgettes to bubble and cook gently – half frying/ half braising, giving the courgettes 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
Bring a large pan of well salted water to a fast boil and add the pasta.
Tip the courgettes into a bowl – remove the garlic if you like – and then using a fork, potato masher or immersion blender (cautiously) mash the courgettes into a rough sauce.
Dice the pancetta.I n the frying pan you cooked the courgettes in, warm the oil and then fry the pancetta until it is crisp. Add the courgette sauce to the pancetta, stir, check seasoning.
When the pasta is al dente, drain – reserving a little of the cooking water – and tip into the pan with sauce. Toss the pasta and sauce together adding a little of the reserved cooking water if you think the sauce needs loosening.
Serve immediately with plenty of freshly grated parmesan.
 .

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Filed under courgettes, food, pasta and rice, recipes, spring recipes, vegetables

Soup kitchen

As much as I like long Italian summers and as much as I relish preparing summer food, I feel – and look – decidedly more at home in autumn: probably my favorite time of year to cook.

Testaccio market is a dependable way to stir my cooking spirits, but never more so than in late October/early November when the now undeniably down-at-heel but resolutely good and spirited market is bosky and damp with autumn and it’s stalls are overflowing with good things. Here, amongst the boisterous Roman chaos, the chestnuts shine like polished mahogany and young pale walnuts, like the wrinkled faces of weather worn old farmers, beg to be cracked open. On most stalls sits a dusty orange pumpkin, the size of squashed basketball, beside it a knife with which the fruttivendolo will cut you a slice of bright orange flesh to make your pumpkin risotto. There are mushrooms, if you’re lucky boletus edulis, better known as porcini – which means little pigs – with their rust colored caps and fat bulbous stems which are indeed like fat piglets or the chubby legs of my seven week old son. You’ll find fragrant quince, their golden skin hiding modestly behind a strange downy coat, freckled pears waiting to be poached in red wine, apples to be eaten just so or baked with butter and brown sugar, and the first of the winter citrus: lemons, oranges and clementines. Stalls are a patchwork of dark green, orange and splashed with red: heaps of spinach tumble into piles of winter cabbage, cavolo nero and leafy Sicilian broccoli, bunches of carrots with their feathery headdresses nuzzle up to curiously lumpy and undeniably phallic squash and heads of deep red raddicio.

First I bought quinces, which I’ve already told you about. Next mushrooms, not porcini but wrinkled morels, some of which I fryed with an artery clogging quantity of butter and garlic and piled on toast. The rest of my autumnal toadstools went into a risotto, not my best risotto it has to be said, but that’s what comes of cooking one-handed while trying to burp a wriggling baby. Then I bought chestnuts and walnuts, a kilo of both to be, in turn, roasted and cracked, a bag of clementines and a butternut squash for soup.

 

Usually by this time of year I am well up to soup speed and producing at least two large panfuls a week. I have been known to topple into soup frenzy sometime in mid November, sautéing, simmering and pureeing everything that enters the kitchen, overdosing on liquid lunches, swearing I will never eat a particular soup again and then forcing the surplus into my tiny freezer, meaning the door won’t shut and the ice melts. But not this year. A long, hot summer that spilled over into autumn, the arrival of my porcini legged son and my generally shoddy kitchen presence has meant soup progress has been sluggish. The experiments with this soup and a serious quantity of pasta ceci however, have redressed the balance and my kitchen can reclaim – part-time at least- the title ‘Soup kitchen’ once again.

At first this was simply a butternut squash soup. Then one day while foraging – it’s all the rage you know – I happened upon a few cooked cannelloni beans lurking in the fridge. I added them to the orange soup, half while it was simmering and the rest after pureeing so as to leave some beans whole. I have continued to add them ever since. The dense, fine-grained and silky flesh of butternut squash makes really good soup: thick and  velvety, savory and sweet. Add some white beans and it’s even more substantial and hearty. A soporific orange soup studded with soft, nutty beans. Delicious, but could send you and your tastebuds to sleep if it weren’t for the parmesan rind (which I will come too later) and a grating of nutmeg. The parmesan gives the soup a salty savory kick and the nutmeg – my favorite spices, the pirate of a spice world, like the sweet and spicy, dusty and dirty bark of a tropical tree, it’s apparently hallucinogenic to boot – livens things up.

This recipe is more or less the template I use for every vegetable soup I make. It’s a well trodden soup path and one I’m sure you’re familiar with. You sauté the kitchen holy trinity in a mixture of butter and a little olive oil. Once the vegetables are soft, you add the diced squash – a compact, sweet squash is crucial here, a spongy, insipid specimen will produce a spongy insipid soup. Next a glug of wine or cooking sherry for the pan and another for the cook, a parmesan rind and a litre of water. You could of course use stock, but if you have good vegetables that taste proper and vitally as they should, water will do. You let the soup bubble and burp away s for 25 minutes -adding some beans at half time -until the squash is extremely tender. Once the soup is ready, you puree half of it until smooth and creamy and then return it to the pan. To finish, you season the soup with salt and a grating of nutmeg.

Back to the rind.

Left over parmesan rinds, with the inch of cheeses still clinging to them, are magic. Well not magic exactly, but just brilliant for soup. If you add a rind or two (depending on how meticulously you have cut away the cheese from the rind) to the pan, they add a deeply savory, salty, smoky depth to the soup. I keep a bag of rinds in the freezer and then throw one – still frozen as the hot soup will soon see to de-frosting duties – into what ever soup is bubbling away on the stove. Once the parmesan rind has done its duty, it’s the cooks duty to gnaw the now soft inch of cheese from the rind.

Good bread, a green salad, a bunch of grapes and a glass of wine and you have a really nice autumn lunch.

Butternut squash and white bean soup

serves 4

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 30g butter
  • 1 medium yellow onion
  • 1 large carrot
  • a stalk of celery
  • salt
  • a medium-sized butternut squash – which should yield about 800g flesh
  • 100ml dry white wine or 2 tbsp of cooking sherry (optional)
  • 1 litre water
  • parmesan rind
  • 300g cooked cannellini beans
  • nutmeg

Peel and small dice the onion, carrot and celery. Warm the oil and butter in a large, heavy based soup pan (which ideally has a lid) and then add the vegetables to it, turning them so they are coated with fat. Sprinkle a little salt over the vegetables and  reduce the heat so the vegetables half fry/half braise until soft – stirring every so often – which should take about 10 minutes.

While the vegetables are cooking, peel, deseed and rough chop the butternut squash. Add the squash to the pan and stir for a couple of minutes so each piece is coated with fat. Add the wine or sherry (optional) and allow it to sizzle for a minute or two. Add add the water and the parmesan rind, bring the soup to the boil and then reduce to a simmer, with the lid slightly ajar, for 25 minutes or until the squash is very tender and starting to collapse. After 15 minutes add half the beans.

When the soup is cooked, remove the parmesan rind and then puree, blend or pass half of it through a mouli and then return it to the pan along with the rest of the beans. Season to taste with salt and a grating of nutmeg.

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Filed under Beans and pulses, food, recipes, soup, vegetables

Rather like peas.

Rather like fresh pea and asparagus season, my stay back here at via Mastro Giorgio 81 will be brief. In both cases: green spring vegetables and Rachel, brevity is best. Best for the vegetables because in a world where production and marketing of food has gone mad, at a time when we’re bamboozled by infinite year-round choice, seasonal food is sanity, a joy to be anticipated, relished and then missed. Until next year that is. Seasonal peas in their pods and asparagus are so nice because they’re just that, seasonal. Brevity is best for me because however important it was to come back; to sort through things, talk, divide and try to forge a new kind of relationship with Vincenzo, however reassuring it feels to be back here in a house I love, I must, we both must, move on.

I don’t intend to move on very far though, in a physical sense that is. I’ve decided to look for a new place here in Testaccio, the quarter of Rome I know and love, the wedge-of parmesan-shaped rione XX tucked between the Tevere river, Aventine hill and the southern most section of the Aurelian wall, the quarter I wandered into over 6 years ago with about 20 words of Italian, one telephone number and no fixed plans. Actually Vincenzo and I have decided together that I’ll stay here in Testaccio, agreeing that it’s big enough for the both of us. We’ve discussed the possibility of a John Wayne sized showdown at some point, possibly in the market, weapons: a selection of underripe and overripe fruit and veg, but have concluded this risk is worthwhile. Vincenzo is stupendous.

So let’s get down to business. I have, hardly surprisingly, been extremely happy and over excited – irritatingly so was one observation –  to be back living next to Testaccio market. After a very emotional reunion with my fruttivendoli Vincenzo and Rita, catching-up of the vegetable kind was embarked upon. I settled back into the kitchen with the always reliable courgette/zucchini carbonara and large pan of spring minestrone, before turning my attention to the new arrivals; peas and the first, plump asparagus.

The first kilo of peas was eaten just so on the way back from the market and while cooking the carbonara – straight from the paper bag, peas flicked from pods into my big mouth. Later the same day I went to supper with my friends Cinzia and Ettore and their kids, my favourite students, Antonio and Lucia. Cinzia served a big plate of fresh peas alongside some olives and cheese as an easy communal starter. It was a happy crashing of hands and podding of peas as Cinzia prepared the lamb. I’ll be borrowing this idea. The first bunch of asparagus was steamed until tender and eaten with olive oil, Roscioli bread and pecorino.

The second kilo of peas and second bunch of fat asparagus were destined for pasta, a spring affair, my interpretation of a lunch made for me early last week: farfalle con piselli e asparagi.

It’s all extremely simple. You pod your peas and steam the asparagus until tender but still firm, You could boil the asparagus I suppose, but I always wonder what you lose into the rolling water. You gently saute the podded peas and steamed, sliced asparagus in olive oil before adding a little white wine or water, a good pinch of salt and letting the peas and asparagus bubble away half covered, until tender and just starting to collapse.

Super-al-dente vegetable fans should look away now, for this particular recipe – or idea really – the peas and asparagus are cooked until very soft and just starting to fall apart – you give them a hand by pressing them gently against the side of the pan with a wooden spoon. Gasp and wince from Super-al-dente vegetable fans. Let me reassure you, you’re not trying to murder the vegetables, nor over-cook them into a murky brown mush (I am a traumatized victim of English school dining rooms in the 70’s remember, I know how bad it can be) you’re just breaking things up a bit, creating a slight creaminess and softness which will coat the pasta and bring things together.

You can add little more olive oil to the peas and asparagus along with a handful of finely chopped parsley or some ripped basil if you like. You should taste and check for salt. You will have a deliciously sweet, tender, oily, green muddle of peas and asparagus . I would happily eat a plate of this just so with a hunk of bread and lump of pecorino Romano.

You cook some Farfalle pasta – the butterfly / bow ties work beautifully here – and add it to the peas and asparagus along with a spoonful of the cloudy pasta cooking water to loosen things up. You could also add a big blob of ricotta at this point – I have plans to do this tomorrow so will update here accordingly. Serve topped with a little heap of freshly grated parmesan or pecorino and a grind of black pepper.

It’s nice to be back at my table with my favourite napkin, the one I borrowed from a restaurant in Trastevere (after a terrible meal I hasten to add! Not that a terrible meal justifies my criminal impulses.) This is my idea of a pretty perfect early spring lunch, well one of them at least, I have many. It’s delicate, fresh, simple. The gentle braising brings out the sweetness and softens the edges of three ingredients that although beautiful together might make for a rather fragmented dish if cooked too quickly, cooking them in this way ensures they come together into a satisfying, nourishing, rounded whole, A very good way to enjoy produce (and a kitchen) that won’t be around for long.

I am looking forward to experimenting around this idea; wild garlic, spring onions, a little finely chopped prosciutto, that big blob of ricotta…

Farfalle con asparagi e piselli

serves 4

  • 1kg fresh peas in pods (which will yield about 300g when podded)
  • bunch of asparagus
  • 60ml/2 floz olive oil
  • 1ooml dry white wine
  • salt
  • some finely chopped parsely or a few ripped basil leaves
  • another 30ml olive oil
  • 450g farfalle pasta
  • freshly grated parmesan/ pecorino

Pod your peas. Cut away the tough woody end of the asparagus – how much you trim will depend on the thickness and variety of asparagus.

Steam / boil asparagus over/ in large pot of boiling salted water until just tender, 2 to 6 minutes, depending on thickness of asparagus. Using a slotted spoon remove the asparagus from the pan and cut into 2″ pieces.

Bring a large pan of well salted water to a fast boil in preparation for the pasta.

Warm the olive oil in a frying pan over a medium heat. Add the peas and a pinch of salt, stir and cook for a minute or two. Add the asparagus pieces, stir, add the wine and allow the vegetables to bubble away. half covered, for 12 minutes. Stir every now and then and gently press the veg against the sides of the pan with a wooden spoon so they break up gently. Pull the vegetables from the heat and add another glug of olive oil, the finely chopped parsley or basil and stir. Taste for salt and add more if necessary.

Put the pasta in the water and cook until al dente. Drain the pasta – reserving a little of the cooking water. Mix the pasta with the peas and asparagus, adding a little of the cooking water to loosen everything. Serve with plenty of freshly grated parmesan or pecorino and a good grind of black pepper.
I have been really touched and sustained by your kind comments and messages over the last couple of months. I wish I could steal green and white checked napkins for each and every one of you to say thank you. But I won’t, as I fear that might result in a large fine, expulsion from Italy or prison.
I joke because otherwise I’d go mad. I really just want to say thank you.

31 Comments

Filed under food, pasta and rice, peas, Rachel's Diary, recipes, spring recipes, vegetables

Pump it up.

I find it virtually impossible to even look at a pumpkin without thinking about a friend of mine doing an impression of Elvis Costello and singing (I use the term singing in the broadest possible sense) ‘Pump(kin) it up‘ and in the middle of Borough market while we were choosing our Halloween orb a few years ago. I laughed so hard I managed to drop the chosen one. As we snorted over the split mess she started singing ‘Pump on the floor’ to the tune of Technotronic’s ‘Pump up the Jam‘ at which point my stomach went into belly laugh spasms, I experienced respiratory problems and we had to retire to the Wheatsheaf Public house for a lunchtime pint and lengthy recompose.

The pump on the chair was a belated birthday present (excellent, I prefer an extended drip drip of gifts as opposed to a downpour) from my friend Andrea. He also gave me a bag of Dante carnaroli rice and a great book about the food of Ferrara which – rather neatly – has a recipe for risotto di zucca (pumpkin risotto) on page 60. But before you can say ‘Risotto can be tricky ‘ I noticed a recipe on the back of the rice packet for a charmingly simple sounding lunch: riso e zucca or rice and pumpkin. It’s a wonderful packet by the way, with a photo of the seductive, sultry Silvana Mangano in the film ‘Riso amaro,’ great rice too, superlative superfino, I only wish I could find you a link and some outrageously good mail delivery offers.

Working on the principle that Signor Dante seems extremely serious about his award-winning superfino carnaroli rice and therefore wouldn’t suggest a shoddy recipe, and that proper risotto – which I adore, both the making of it and the eating – can be unpredictable, I decided to give the recipe on the back of the packet a whirl. It’s all very straightforward. Having peeled or engaged in some fancy carving and de seeded the pumpkin, you cut it into chunks which you then poach in a little water. After a few minutes you add the rice and then – bar the odd nudge, stir and a bit more water – you can leave things alone, bubbling gently, for about 17 minutes. Once the rice is tender, silky, but with bite, you add a thick slice of butter, lots of freshly grated Parmesan, maybe a little salt and a good grind of black pepper, stir enthusiastically and serve.

We were both a little skeptical, no onion cooked in butter, no vermouth perking proceedings up, no chicken stock, no figure-of-eight stirring for 17 minutes, no risotto – were we going to be terribly disappointed? Vincenzo had to remind me four times that we were following a recipe which suggested you stir occasionally as I attempted risotto-style continuous stirring. We both peered suspiciously into the pan at the very very orange contents, we both tasted with furrowed brows. It has to be said the first taste was a pretty subdued experience: the texture was good, the rice was indeed excellent – Bravo Signor Dante, the pumpkin full of flavour, but it was all rather neutral. But then, ‘That was to be expected‘ we mumbled, ‘After all, it was just rice and pumpkin cooked in water.‘ We needed to wait for the addition of the very thick slice of good butter, a little mountain of the king kong of the cheese board: Parmesan, a grind of black pepper and a flick of salt. We tasted again, furrows relaxed.’Very nice‘ sparkled Vincenzo’s eyes, suddenly things were looking and tasting, well, really rather tasty.

We declared it delicious, not as complex or refined as a risotto but, delicious none the less. It tastes as pleasingly straightforward as it sounds on the back of the packet, as true and simple as its name, Riso e Zucca. The rice – creamy and starchy, and the pumpkin – which has partly collapsed into a soft, sweet/savory puree but with some soft, tender chunks, are brought together by the butter and the rich, round parmesan into a glorious soft mound, a delicious yielding whole. As we devoured the whole panful, which was more than enough for four, we discussed the fact that if liked or used the term comfort food – I blame food magazines who hijacked this term then twisted and over foodstyled it into a horrid cliché – we might well use it now.

In the presence of such a majestic piece of Parmesan – another present, this time from my Dad who spent a few days in Rome recently and insisted on doing some of our shopping in Volpetti (another excellent thing) – it seemed churlish not to grate a little more over the top.

Vincenzo reminded me that, as with risotto, our Rice and pumpkin needed a couple of minutes on the plate to settle, so the flavours could come together. After sad two minutes he proceeded to spread the mound out a little on the plate, from the center towards the rim, so the steam dissipated before he took the first mouthful.

My dreadful two-week procrastination in writing this post has meant that we have actually made this four times now, testament to the fact it is very good, beautifully simple and pretty perfect for these autumnal days and my low-key (lazy) presence in the kitchen at present. Advice for this one, well, the best ingredients you can lay your hands on, especially the rice and the parmesan and the pan should be heavy based. I have used both our shallow saute pan and the rather appropriately coloured flaming orange Le Creuset.

Last thing, when I made this for supper with some friends last week, I deep-fried some sage leaves and crumbled them over the top. Soft, velvety sage leaves become crisp like brittle autumn leaves when fried, so you can crumble them between your fingers and scatter their alluring, musty scent over your riso e zucca – highly recommended.

Pump it up I say.

Riso e Zucca (Rice and pumpkin)

  • 300g Carnaroli rice
  • 600g pumpkin flesh (I reckon a this is a 1kg pumpkin peeled and deseeded)
  • 500ml water plus extra
  • 60g butter
  • 50g freshly grated parmesan plus more for on top
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • sage (optional)

Cut away the skin from the pumpkin, remove the seeds and stringy flesh and cut it into walnut sized chunks.

In a heavy based pan or deep frying pan bring 500ml of water to the boil. Once the water is boiling add the pumpkin and let it cook for 4 minutes and then add the rice.

Lower the heat slightly so the water is gently boiling and set the timer for 17 minutes. Now you need to stir the rice and pumpkin gently, turning it, every few minutes or so. You will probably need to add more water, the mixture should be loose, like a thick soup and roll off the spoon – I added another 200ml.

After about 15 mins taste: the rice should be cooked but still have bite and the pumpkin should be soft and collapsing but still retain some shape. Add the butter and parmesan and stir enthusiastically, taste and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Serve with more freshly grated parmesan and ideally with crumbled deep-fried sage leaves.

Post lunch, slice of cake would have been perfect but grapes and clementines were nearly as nice.

Apologies for being so absent by the way, both with posts and comments. I hope you are all well and that I can pump it up rather more around here in the coming weeks.

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Filed under food, grains, pasta and rice, recipes, vegetables

A suggestion

As I write this, I’m thinking about my sister Rosie and my brother-in-law Paul, who thanks to Paul’s metamorphosis into a veritable Monty Don, have a vegetable patch brimming with the most lovely, pale-green courgettes, each one crowned, like a Las Vegas show girl, with a golden-yellow flower. They’re excellent courgettes, quite unlike the dark-green spongy fleshed specimens you find in English supermarkets. As a matter of fact, they’re very like the courgettes, le zucchine romane, we find here in Rome, sweet, with tender flesh and an almost creamy texture when cooked.

Hardy surprisingly, there have been rather a lot of courgettes consumed in a certain house in West London this summer. When I visited a couple of weeks ago, Rosie and Paul were still enjoying their home-grown bounty, there was soup I think, pasta with buttery courgettes, courgette fritters, courgette carbonara, delicious stuff all of it. But there were also telling signs: a look, a sigh, a slightly weary ‘Oh really, again, lovely’. Saturation point was clearly not far off. After I left, courgette plants thriving, the situation assumed slightly comic proportions as Paul – who has taken on all garden and cooking duties since their little girl arrived – trapped in a sort of courgette groundhog day, continued to produce a succession of courgette themed suppers until eventually – we’d seen the signs – my sister snapped. The inevitable courgette meltdown. I can’t be sure, but I fear long green vegetables may have been sacrificed. A break from homegrown produce, and a real holiday, ensued.

I’m glad to report that it was only a temporary courgette hiatus, and that Rosie, Paul and Beattie are now back home with renewed enthusiasm for their garden bounty. So this is for them, a suggestion, a large open faced Italian omelette with vegetables and cheese: a Courgette and Ricotta Frittata. I was all set to E mail my sister, but then it occurred to me that some of you might like this recipe. It’s hardly groundbreaking I know, but it’s a useful and tasty one. It also crossed my mind that I’m in the middle of an extremely long and rambling post about tomatoes which I’m not sure anyone is actually going to read and that this might provide some light relief before I press publish on that tomato epic.

We make a frittata of one sort or another most weeks: Onion and potato, Leek and goats cheese, Asparagus, Salt cod -I must write about this frittata one day because it’s delicious, Pea, potato and spring onion (any more than three ingredients in a frittata and Vincenzo looks puzzled) and now this, a discovery this summer, Courgette and ricotta frittata. I’ve made various courgette frittatas in the past, but I’ve always found them to be rather watery, even when I’ve sautéed the courgette slowly and patiently to try and evaporate some of the water away.

This recipe was, this recipe is, a little revelation: you grate the courgette into a clean teatowel or cheese cloth and then you squeeze out – really squeeze – as much water as you can. This means the courgette is drier when you saute it, more flavoursome and more inclined to absorb the butter infused with savory spring onion. In short, it makes for a much tastier frittata. The addition of ricotta – the soft, white, granular cheese made by re-cooking the watery residue left over from cheese making – makes for a nice addition to proceedings. The slightly tart sheep’s milk ricotta  – ricotta di pecora is especially good if you can find it. We like this ricotta on hot toast with chestnut honey.

Back to the fittata. It’s all very straightforward, I’m sure you know how to make a frittata, but just in case: you soften the spring onion in butter and olive oil, then you add the grated courgette and saute it gently until it’s wilted, tender, and any water that wasn’t squeezed away has evaporated. Now you mix the courgette and onion mixture with beaten eggs and ricotta. Now you pour the mixture back into the frying pan and cook the frittata gently over a low flame until it is nearly set. You finish the fritatta under the grill (if you don’t have a grill you can invert in onto a plate and then slide it back into the pan.

Now as much as I like carefully made frittata/ frittate – pesky plurals, I do tend to think of them rather dismissively; a kitchen standby, a Tuesday lunch, oh that old thing. Well. I did. A month or so ago we went to a pretty formal celebration lunch where, amongst other things, we were served a fantastic antipasti, simple, delicious and in such good taste. There were plates of bruschetta di pomodori –  toasted bread rubbed with garlic, topped with chopped cuore di bue tomatoes, basil and extra virgin olive oil, vast platters of home cured prosciutto and last but not least, six Courgette and sheep’s milk ricotta frittate  – deep, yellow circles flecked with green – punctuating the long tables. Delicious stuff. We helped ourselves to a slice of bruschetta, a curl of prosciutto, a wedge of frittata. I made a mental note: do not underestimate the frittata.

Last thing, I’m sure you know, it’s really important you season this frittata properly,  both the courgettes and the ricotta are mild tasting: they need seasoning. A good pinch of salt in with the courgettes when they are cooking with the spring onions, and another generous pinch – along with a good grind of black pepper – to the egg and ricotta mixture. Remember, ‘Where would we be without salt.’ James Beard.

Courgette and ricotta frittata

  • 200g courgettes – the pale, slim zucchine romane are particularly good
  • 3 or 4 (about 150g) spring onions
  • knob of butter
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 7 large free range eggs
  • 120g of ricotta (sheep’s milk ricotta is ideal but cow’s milk ricotta is fine)
  • more butter for cooking the frittata

Wash the courgettes really throughly – they have a habit of collecting grit in the ridges, Then top and tail them saving the flowers for a salad or to fry in batter. Now grate the courgette on the coarse side of your grater into a very clean, linen teatowel.

Now twist the ends of the tea towel, creating a ball of courgette and squeeze as much liquid as you can out of the courgettes into a bowl. I think some people might recommend drinking this disturbing green juice, advocating its heath giving properties, I didn’t.

Wash the spring onions and slice them into fine rings. Melt a small knob of butter and a tablespoon of olive oil in your non-stick frying pan and saute the spring onion over a gentle flame until it’s soft and translucent. Add the grated courgette and a pinch of salt and saute gently for about 4 – 6 minutes or until the courgette is soft and very tender. Meanwhile in a large bowl gently beat the 7 large eggs.

Now gently whisk in the ricotta into the eggs – it will be lumpy, this is fine – and generously season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. By now the courgette should be ready, so tip them into the bowl with the egg mixture and stir. Put the frying pan back on the heat – a low flame – add another very small knob of butter and once it has melted roll the melted butter around the pan before pouring in the egg and courgette mixture. Use a fork to even out the surface a little and then allow the frittata to cook gently for 6 – 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat the grill. By now the frittata will have set underneath – you can see when you shake the pan from side to side very gently – but will still be runny on top. Put the frittata under the hot grill for about a minute – keep an eagle eye – it will puff up slightly, set firm and turn golden brown on top. Pull the frittata from under the grill and slide it onto a serving plate

Wait at least 15 minutes before serving the frittata so the flavours can settle.

Serve with sliced tomatoes dressed with salt and olive oil or a green salad. We ate the second half of our frittata for lunch with Bruschetta di pomodori.

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Filed under courgettes, Eggs, food, Frittate, recipes, summer food, vegetables

Frying tonight

The golden, orange tipped flowers attached to the end of each courgette (zucchini) are female. The slightly smaller flowers with long, firm stems that grow directly, shooting really, from the main stem of the plant – like the ones in the jug above – are male. Both can be eaten.

At this time of year, when the market stalls in Testaccio are heavy with crates of pale green, blossom tipped zucchini Romano and bunches of their delicate flowers, we often have courgette flowers in salad. Torn into green leaves, or even better, into thin shavings of courgette dressed with olive oil and salt. I like a couple of bright yellow flowers tucked into some warm piazza bianca with milky mozzarella. We often add them – right at the end with a handful of basil – to courgette carbonara or fusilli with buttery courgettes. They are lovely in summer minestrone.

But maybe the nicest and most delicious way to eat courgette flowers, is to grab them by the tail, dip them in batter and fry them in very hot oil until they are crisp and golden.

Until this summer I busied myself with salad and Carbonara and left the dipping and frying to others, most notably the pizzeria Nuovo Mondo on Via Amerigo Vespucci. Once a week, usually Friday or Sunday, we make our familiar pizza pilgrimage; walking past the piazza and Marcello’s flower stall, crossing Via Branca and passing the old Testaccio football club – which is now a depressing betting shop – before turning into via Amerigo Vespucci. Sometime we pit stop at Giolitti for an apertivo; campari for Vincenzo, prosecco for me, before taking a table in our favourite pizzeria. Having worked our way through the menu we’re pretty set in our ways now. Medium birra alla spina and capricciosa for me, and small birra alla spina and marinara for the small Sicilian. And while we wait for the vast, thin crusted pizzas to be dragged from the red hot bowels of the wood oven, while we watch the expert hands of the pizzaroli spinning and shaping, a mozzarella filled rice coquette; suppli for Vincenzo and a deep-fried courgette flower; fiori di zucca for me.

The fiori di zucca at Nuovo Mondo, like those served at most pizzeria and many trattoria in Rome, are stuffed with mozzarella and anchovy then dipped in batter and fried. They are quite delicious things usually served on a little white plate on top of a square of brown paper. They should be freshly fried, straight from the hot oil, so tongue scaldingly hot. You wait a few seconds and then grab the crisp golden cocoon with a paper napkin. You bite into the crisp batter which gives way to the soft forgiving flower petals – a nice contrast – and then finally a soft pool of anchovy infused mozzarella. For the fish and cheese together dubious among you I suggest you try these.

But as much as I adore the fiori di zucca at Nuovo Mondo and our other Roman haunts, the best fried courgette flowers I’ve ever eaten were in Puglia, during that hot, humid and delicious midnight feast at the Masseria. We were presented with a vast platter of golden cocoons, some were filled with mozzarella, other with ricotta I think, but the nicest were the simplest. The male flowers on long elegant stems just so, dipped in the lightest, batter and fried. Crisp and golden on the outside the batter puffed with pride, soft and forgiving within. The secret, the cook willingly – so willingly it was rather surprising after all the secret recipe moments – told us, was beaten egg whites folded into the flour, water and olive oil batter.

I blame Nuovo Mondo for my courgette flower frying procrastination, but then last week just before going to London, in the midst of much fried anchovy experimentation I decided it was time. In the absence of any real recipe or exact quantities, I anticipated lots of experimenting. But things were much simpler than expected.  It turns out that my basic batter recipe – 200ml warm water, 100g plain flour and 2 tbsp of olive oil – with the addition of two stiffy beaten egg whites is a pretty damn marvelous courgette flower batter. Delicate and light. But not too light, you want some body and substance. I have repeated this tasty excercise twice more, just to make sure it wasn’t a fantastic fluke.

It’s really important you allow the batter a nice long rest – at least two hours in the fridge (I also add a couple of ice cubes) before folding in the beaten egg whites. Oh, and it’s important you beat the egg whites until they are so stiff you can invert the bowl over your head – my sous chef does this. Once you have added the egg white, dip and then fry the courgette flowers immediately.

On a practical note remember to wash the flowers very carefully, they will probably be providing a pretty home for lots of little insects. Dry them gently with a soft clean cloth and remove the pistils from female flowers, and stamens from the male flowers.

The male flower is perfect because the stem provides a tail with which you can hold to dip the flower in the batter and then lower it gently into the pan. Make sure you coat each flower generously with batter. Fry in small batches, allowing the batter covered flowers to bob around happily, you may need to nudge them with a wooden fork so they cook evenly. Once they are a beautiful golden colour, lift them out using a slotted spoon onto a plate lined with kitchen towel or brown paper. Sprinkle with little coarse salt and serve immediately.

If your eggs are large you will probably only need one.

Fried courgette flowers (fiori di zucca)

  • 15 courgette flowers
  • 200ml warm water
  • 100g plain flour (I used Italian 00)
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • pinch of salt
  • 2 egg whites beaten until they form stiff peaks
  • vegetable oil for frying

Wash the zucchini/courgette flowers carefully and remove the pistils from female flowers and stamens from the male flowers. Pat them dry with a soft, clean cloth.

Using a balloon whisk mix the warm water and flour and then add the olive oil, it will have the consistency of single cream. Leave to rest in the fridge for at least 2 hours – you can add a couple of icecubes.

Whisk the eggs whites until they form stiff peaks. The whites should be so stiff you should be able to invert the bowl over your head.

Using a metal spoon gently fold the whites into the batter. Add a pinch of salt.

Heat some vegetable oil to 160-180C in a deep-fat fryer or heavy-based saucepan (but no more than half full). Test the oil by dropping a little batter into the oil. If it browns after a minute or so then it’s ready.

Working in small batches dip the flowers in the batter and then gently lower them into a pan. Allow the batter covered flowers to bob around happily, you may need to nudge them with a fork so they cook evenly.

Once they are a beautiful golden colour, lift them our with a slotted spoon onto a plate lined with kitchen towel or brown paper. Sprinkle with little coarse salt and serve immediately with prosecco.

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Filed under antipasti, food, Rachel's Diary, recipes, vegetables

Pressing concerns.

It was meant to be a doorstop or a bookend, but this old iron, bought for three euros at Porta Portese market, has unexpectedly grafted itself on to our kitchen lives, become part of our unsophisticated but trusted batteria di cucina and proved itself to be extremely useful. It’s perfect for squashing and searing steak, chicken or slices of vegetable onto the griddle, it’s not half bad at pounding a slice of veal to a scaloppine and it’s better, and more entertaining, than a rolling-pin when it comes to smashing, crushing and reducing digestive biscuits to crumbs. When the nutcracker alluded us, it made short shift of shelling the walnuts, hazelnuts, and on another, rather messy occasion, this iron conquered a coconut. I have only dropped it on my foot once.

If you can stand the excitement of my iron tales, there’s more. You know how the greaseproof paper scuttles back into a roll as you try to draw a circle on it with a blunt pencil in an attempt to line the cake tin ? Well it doesn’t if this sturdy chap is holding down the corner, he does the same with cookbooks that might otherwise fan closed just at the crucial moment – I know, it’s rock and roll in our house. Last but not least, our iron, our ferro stiro is ready, waiting, like a cymbal player in an orchestra, for the moment when the recipe says….. ‘place a heavy weight on top.’

I know, I know, it’s not the most commonplace recipe instruction, but every now and then, heavy weights – like cymbals – are called up for their moment of glory, like now, for pressed potato.

‘Pressed potato is a very tasty and brilliantly simple idea. It is, as the name suggests, potato that’s pressed with said heavy weight. More specifically you boil good waxy potatoes until they’re tender, then you slice them into thick rounds and layer them in a clingfilm lined mould or bread tin, not forgetting to sprinkle each layer cautiously with good, plump capers and season prudently with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Average pictures of this on Flickr but I’m sure your imagination is better.

Once you’ve filled the mould, tin or in this case a rectangular Pyrex container to the top, you bring the cling film over the potatoes neatly, as if you were swaddling a baby – not that I’ve ever swaddled a baby but I’ve observed –  then you place your heavy weight on top and refrigerate overnight. The next day you invert the pressed potato onto a large plate and peel away the clingfilm so you can admire your curiously beautiful, patchwork potato loaf, flecked with green on the sides.

You can now slice your pressed potato with a sharp knife.

I’ve made two of these this week and we can now firmly agree with Fergus Henderson (this is his idea) that a slice of waxy pressed potato studded with salty, gutsy capers is a wonderful base for oily, salty things. Each slice dressed with anchovy fillets and more extra virgin oil is delicious, as is a slice beside two rashers of grilled bacon. On Tuesday Vincenzo had two slices topped with two frilly edged olive oil fried eggs. But our favorite was a slice of pressed potato with a couple of hard-boiled eggs and a very big dollop of one of the very nicest lotions, green sauce (salsa verde) made from masses of parsley, mint, capers, garlic, anchovies and olive oil. By the way, I am never using the mixer again for green sauce because it’s true, you end up with a pulp rather than the marvelous textural delight you get if you chop roughly by hand.

Green sauce is a wonderful thing, as is pressed potato and hard-boiled eggs for that matter.

This is a plateful that requires good bread, sourdough is particularly fine with this lot, and a serious amount of messing up – green sauce piled on potato and mashed into eggs, everything nudged and piled on bread, more oil, more bread to mop up more green sauce, another slice of pressed potato……you get the idea I hope . Bold and simple food.

You can of course use any heavy weight – before the iron I had a brick in the kitchen.

Pressed potato

Adapted from Fergus Henderson’s book Nose to tail eating

Good waxy potatoes are important

  • 2kg waxy (cyprus or the likes) potatoes, peeled
  • a healthy handful of capers (extra fine if possible, if not roughly chopped)
  • salt and black pepper

Boil the potatoes in salted water, check for when they are done with a sharp knife in order to catch them before they fall apart, Drain.

Line a bread tin or mould with cling film. As soon as the potatoes are cool enough to handle but still warm, slice them into 1cm thick circles. Lay one layer of sliced potatoes at the bottom of the tin – don’t be afraid to patchwork this – sprinkle cautiously with some of the capers, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper, cover with another layer of potatoes, more capers and salt and pepper. Repeat until the tin is full. cover with cling film and place a heavy weight on top.

Place in the refrigerator over night. The next day tip the pressed potato out of the mould and slice with a thin sharp knife.

Green sauce

Adapted from Fergus Henderson’s book Nose to tail eating

  • Large bunch of flat leaved parsley
  • a small bunch of mint
  • a handful of dill
  • a small tin of anchovy fillets in oil, drained and chopped
  • 12 cloves of garlic peeled and chopped
  • a handful of capers, rinsed if under salt and roughly chopped
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • black pepper

Chop your herbs finely but not too finely and mix with the anchovies and capers in a large bowl. Add the olive oil a bit at a time, you want to keep the consistency loose but still spoonable, not runny or too oily. Taste and season with black pepper, the anchovies and capers mean you probably won’t need extra salt. Serve in generous dollops.

I’m sure you can make a neater pressed potato than me, Vincenzo called my attempts pressed stressed potato, I was quite stressed at that particular moment so I wasn’t amused. I have another pressed potato in the fridge under the iron right now, we are going to have it tomorrow night with smoked eel and horseradish sauce which I’m hoping will be very tasty.

Other pressing concerns, yep, I have a few, mostly tedious and the reason I’m not here as much as I’d like to be. Thats life I suppose and it’s good to be here now. Have a really good (rest of the) weekend.

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Filed under food, potatoes, recipes, sauces, vegetables

More peas please.

I always have a packet of peas in the freezer. For years they were Birds eye, then dubious buyouts, my conscience and an Italian address got the better of me and my allegiance was swapped to a small Italian brand called la via lattea. Tucked next to the ice cubes, on top of the tub of chicken stock – I’ll come to that uncharacteristically organised habit later – and squashed up against a couple of parmesan rinds which may or may not have adhered themselves to the freezer wall, this packet of peas is often the only thing in our tiny, icy, post-box-sized freezer.

My relationship with this packet of peas is much the same as the one I have with my tin of illy coffee, and very like the one I used to have with my packet of cigarettes – cue wave of guilty nostalgia. Meaning mild anxiety when I’m approaching the last few servings, proper twitchy anxiety at the thought I may run out prompting urgent trip to the shops, and great relief when a new packet is purchased and tucked away.

And what do I do with all these frozen peas you might – or might not – be asking? Well, rather too many of them are steamed back to life then mixed with rice, butter, black pepper, sometimes parmesan or a chopped hard-boiled egg, maybe some smoky fish for a rather unsophisticated but tasty and faithful solitary supper. If I’ve remembed to defrost the stock, I make Lindsey Bareham’s quick pea and mint soup, just-like-that as Tommy Cooper would say. Sometimes I feel very English and boil peas to death with fresh mint and then blast them with lots of butter into a green velvety puree for beside the roast chicken. We have them tossed with tiny farfalle pasta or rolling around beside mashed potato and fat sasauges. I could go on. As a rule I like peas at least once a week, did I mention I like peas?

But then, for about six weeks each year the packet sits patiently, and I like to think approvingly, in the freezer adhering itself to the bottom shelf, while it’s local, sweet, peak-of-season, freshly picked cousins in their smart, perky, bright green jackets, take center stage and roll around our kitchen.

Most of the first bagful is eaten raw and slightly compulsively, pods split, peas flicked from within straight into our mouths. on the way home from the market, if they’re particularly small and tender, pod and all. Vincenzo likes to eat them as Romans eat the first tiny broad beans, fave, meaning a big dish of peas in their pods is put in the middle of the table so everyone can peel their own to eat with hunks of salty, piquant, sheep’s milk cheese Pecorino Romano, sweet and salty mouthfuls, interspersed with sips and gulps of white wine. The second bagful is shelled, steamed with mint and doused with butter. The third is probably destined for frittedda and the fourth, the Venetian dish Risi e Bisi, Rice and peas.

Now before you are underwhelmed by the name, let me explain. Risi e Bisi is a quite delicious dish that I think epitomizes spring and the simple beauty of Italian food. Onion cooked in butter, some very fresh peas, homemade stock and Italian rice are simmered up into a soft, rippling, creamy mass, which is speckled with chopped flat leaf parsley and enriched with freshly grated parmesan.

Don’t be fooled or told otherwise – I was, before being corrected in no uncertain terms by a very knowledgable and bossy Venetian and Marcella Hazan – Risi e Bisi is not risotto with peas, it is a soup, albeit a very thick one, which you can eat with a fork, but the slightly runny consistency means a spoon is probably better. Its execution is similar to that of risotto, but the cooking time is slightly longer and you don’t need to stir so continuously, just the occasional nudge nudge.

My frozen pea dependency means I can make Rice and peas all year-long, but it should only – our friend, Marcella and Vincenzo are very clear about this – be called Risi e Bisi in spring, when it’s made with fresh peas, some of the empty pods which made the dish even sweeter and good homemade stock. Now this is where I could be accused of inauthenticity, Marcella and several other recipes insist on a beef stock, but I find that rather imposing and prefer a lighter chicken stock.

So this stock. Now, I am forever disappointing myself in the kitchen, full of good intentions, fancy pants plans and projects which remain, well, good intentions, fancy pants plans and projects (I never told you about most of the lemons did I!) However, I have finally got into the satisfying habit, it’s been a couple of years now, of making stock, mostly chicken, each week, half for the fridge and half for the freezer. Fergus Henderson is right, there is almost nothing as reassuring as having stock up your sleeve. I generally make it on a Monday with the carcass of the roast chicken from the weekend or chicken bones, neck and wings my butcher gives me for near to nothing. Please feel free to skip this next section if you are not bothered or in need of chicken stock advice

Fergus Henderson’s chicken stock

Onions (with skin on, chopped in half); a bulb of garlic (with skin on, chopped in half); carrots (peeled and slit lengthways); a leek (split lengthways and cleaned); celery with leaves; a bay leaf; herbs; a few peppercorns; chicken bones and wings with skin.

Cover your stock ingredients with enough water to allow for skimming (which is vital), but not so much as to drown any flavour. Bring the pan to a simmer, but not a rolling boil as this will boil the surface scum back into the stock. I shall say again SKIM. Simmer for about 2 hours. To know if the stock is ready taste and taste again. Strain the stock into a large bowl and allow to cool. Chill overnight.
Skim off any fat that has formed on the surface. Use within 3 days or freeze
.

What was I talking about? Ah yes, Risi e Bisi.

Once you have made your stock and podded your pea comes the tricky part, well, I say tricky it’s fiddly really, but very worth while. You take about ten of the nicest empty pods and pull away the clear inner membrane on the inside of each pod along with any stringy bits – I’ve explained it better below. You are going to add this sweet green flesh to the pan, it will sweeten and add flavour to proceedings and then dissolve. It is – my friend tells me – the secret of this dish. Now it’s all very straightforward, the chopped onion is sautéed in butter to which you add the peas, prepared pods and most of the stock and simmer for 10 minutes. You add the rice, the end of the stock and simmer covered for another 20 minutes with the occasional stir and nudge. Finish with parsley and freshly grated parmesan. Serve with more Parmesan.

The juxtaposition of sweet peas, starchy grains and the deeply savory parmesan, the contrast of textures, the absolute goodness and simplicity of it all, the fact we can only have it for a few weeks every year, it’s the sum of all these parts that make this the dish it is. It is one of our absolute favourites. Having said that, Vincenzo has firmly requested I don’t make it for a while having eaten it, what with leftovers, five times this week, thus proving you can have too much of a good thing.

You can of course use a very good, full flavoured homemade vegetable stock and yes, of course you can make this with frozen peas, after all some of the fresh ones leave alot to be desired, those mealy, out-of-town canonballs. Just remember to call call it rice and peas thats all.

Risi e Bisi

Apparently serves 4 but the two of us can polish off most of this leaving nice (very small portion of) leftovers for later. So lets say serves 4 as a modest primo and 2 as a main course for hungry (greedy) people.

Adapted from Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking

  • 1 kg young, sweet, peak of season unshelled peas (should yield about 300g of peas) or if you really can’t find them 300g of frozen peas.
  • 50g butter
  • 1 small white onion finely chopped
  • salt
  • 225g Italian rice (vialone nero or carnaroli rice)
  • 750ml homemade chicken or vegetable stock
  • a handful of finely chopped flat leaf parsley
  • 50g freshly grated parmesan

Shell the peas and set them aside and reserve 10 of the nicest empty pods. Now on the inside of each pod is a thin, clear membrane which you can gently pull away (it is very thin so will break and you will need to pull it away in bits.) Cut away any bit you have been unable to skin. keep these skinned pods with the peas.

In a saute pan, deep frying pan or soup pot, saute the onion in the butter over a medium flame until it is soft and translucent. Add the peas and the skinned pods and a good pinch of salt. Cook for a couple of minutes, stirring and nudging.

Add about two-thirds of the broth, reduce the heat and cover the pot, allow it to cook gently for 10 minutes.

Add the rice and the rest of the broth, stir, then put the lid back on the pot and allow it to cook at a gentle but persistent simmer for about 20 minutes and the rice is cooked but still firm to the bite. I start tasting after 15 minutes.

Stir in the parsley and gated parmesan and then turn off the heat. Taste, add salt if you think it is necessary and then serve with a bowl of grated parmesan so people can help themselves.

Thank you for all your nice, supportive and not so supportive – I value criticism too, even if it is anonymous – comments and messages about my last post, the rather self-possessed one that felt nearly as messy as my departure. I will pick up where I left off at some point, I’m just not sure when. Hope you are having a good weekend wherever you are.

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Filed under food, grains, pasta and rice, rachel eats Italy, recipes, vegetables