Hello, and here is the link to this week’s Kitchen Sink Tales. If I get my act together, there will be more here later this week. – R
Hello, and here is the link to this week’s Kitchen Sink Tales. If I get my act together, there will be more here later this week. – R
It is nice to be here. I am thrilled to be writing for The Guardian, the newspaper I have read all my reading life. But writing here feels like coming home after a long day somewhere unfamiliar: walking in the door (the day the cleaner has been), yanking off shoes and the short jumper you have been tugging at all day, then pulling on the most comfortable thing you own. I have you all to thank for this.
As promised, I am here to link to the column, Kitchen Sink Tales installment three. I also want to elaborate a recipe I mention, zucca alla scapece, marinated pumpkin. It is a recipe from Flavio, the owner of a trattoria called Flavio al Velavevodetto, which means something along the lines of Flavio of I told you so, a name retort to someone who thought Flavio would never open a trattoria. Which he did, a good one, burrowed into the base of Monte dei Cocci, Rome’s extraordinary manmade hill constructed in antiquity entirely from bits of broken terra-cotta amphorae, or cocci, that once contained olive oil. The Monte is moments from our flat, so the trattoria one of our locals. I called by a week or so ago, a mild October morning, and sat at an outside table looking up at the Monte covered with the grass and shrubs of centuries until Flavio arrived, and – never at a loss for words – told me about his morning (a blood test) and recipe.
Alla scapece comes from the spanish word escabeche, which means sousing something, usually vegetables or fish, in an acidic mixture before serving. In summer Flavio marinates fried coins of courgettes in olive oil, vinegar, garlic, chili and musty and fragrant Roman mint. In autumn, when blazing orange zucca is abundant he treats it similarly for a delicious sweet and sour antipasti. It is even more delicious when sharing a plate with another of Rome’s autumn treasures: puntarelle, chicory cut and crisped in iced water until it looks like Shirley Temple’s hair and then dressed with an opinionated anchovy, lemon and garlic dressing – it is part of the pleasure that the curls misbehave and you have a chin glistening with anchovy olive oil. I also like zucca alla scapece sitting on top of a pile of hot, peppery rocket.
For his Trattoria scapece Flavio deep-fries the zucca in oil. For a home cook, with a small, badly ventilated kitchen, he suggests oven roasting with olive oil, which is something I do often in autumn and winter, for risotto and soup. I am a big fan of cooking up things that provide the basis for two or three meals, so two trays of wrinkly roasted pumpkin it was. Some for risotto, the leftovers of which was rolled into arancini, the rest for scapece.
As with so many such dishes, and me, zucca alla scapece is better after a rest, a whole night even. Just remember to bring it back to room temperature and nudge the chunks in the dressing before you serve, with bread and a glass of wine that can hold its own.
Zucca alla scapece – Roasted sweet and sour pumpkin with garlic, chilli and mint
for the dressing
Put the wedges of Pumpkin or squash in a baking tray, sprinkle with salt and zigzag over some olive oil. If you like, use your hands to rub the olive oil in. Roast at 200° for 30 – 40 minutes or until the wedges are tender and golden at the edges. Leave in the tin to cool.
Peel and very finely chop the garlic and chill, and tear the mint into little pieces with your fingers. In a small bowl whisk together the olive oil, vinegar, garlic, chili, mint and a pinch of salt. Lay the pumpkin on a lipped plate, cutting larger pieces in two, even three, pour over the dressing and then use two spoons, or your hands to gently turn the wedges until they all glisten. Leave to sit for at least 30 minutes, ideally an hour, turning a couple of times.
Zucca alla scapece is even better the next day, cover with clingfilm and keep in the fridge, but remember to pull it out at least 30 minutes before you want to eat it.
After all that, here is the link for this week’s Kitchen Sink Tales.
Also the link to Flavio al Velavevodetto. If you do decide to go, remember to book, and in the winter ask for a table in the main dining room which is burrowed into the Monte where glass panels allow you to see the astonishing layers of broken pot. Monte di Cocci is closed to the public, but there are tours, which means you can walk, clink by astonishing clink, up and over shards of broken amphorae and then take in mighty views of classical and, equally fascinating, industrial Rome. Katie Parla and Irene Ranaldi both lead excellent tours.
You can now tear me out, from Guardian Cook, each Saturday. I hope you enjoy the recipe enough for it to merit a place pinned to the fridge with a magnet, stuck in a book, or as a book mark. I fully understand though, if you use me to start a fire, wrap a broken glass or simply recycle me. The weekly Column will also be on-line and I will share the link here too. More soon R
I was, for some years, a serial ripper-outer. It was in the days when the food section in newspapers was minor; a paragraph, possibly a line drawing and a good, usually un-fussy recipe that you may well make that night. And I did, supper cooked according to a column, the paper curling in the steam of it all. These torn strips, many the brilliant Lindsay Bareham writing in the Evening Standard, were as much a part of my cooking education as lessons from my mum, my cookbooks and Keith Floyd on the telly. Somewhere in one of the boxes in my parent’s garage – that I really need to deal with – is a fat bundle, by now yellowed, the paper clip probably sunk so deeply that its rusty mark is branded. Somewhere in that bundle are the recipes for white bean humus I made most weeks for about a year, tasty breaded lamb chops (if I remember correctly there were capers in the mix, which felt racy) and potato and herb soup.
The potato and herb soup was a recipe I ripped from a newspaper on a tube, probably on the circle line. I followed the recipe in the kitchen of my flat on Paddington street, which means it was 1998 or 99 and I’d recently left Drama school with swagger and dread. I can’t remember what had gone on that day, but it required the comforting embrace and soporific effects of something warm and savory – and plenty of it – eaten with a spoon. I will have bought the herbs from one of the middle eastern shops on Chiltern street, cursed the kitchen door that opened inwards in front of the fridge several times during the cooking, and eaten the soup sitting on the rug because I didn’t have a table. My shoulders dropped and my stomach unraveled, the torn strip won a place under a fridge magnet until I moved.
I still turn to potato soup, often. Actually these days it is usually pasta e patate, which is best described as a simple potato soup in which you cook a pasta, a minestra to be eaten with a spoon. This is the ideal recipe for an old style recipe column, the this is what you should have for super sort: take an onion, a carrot, a rib of celery, a bay leaf and a couple of potatoes, chop and sweat the lot gently in olive oil, add water and simmer, add pasta and simmer more, tweak with salt, pepper and grated pecorino. I am tempted to say this soup is a sum far greater than its parts, but that makes it sound grand and it isn’t. It is neat though, the potato collapsing into a starchy, almost silky stock in which you cook the pasta, the starch of which thickens everything further. Thickens, but not too much, after all this is all about eating with a spoon. My shoulders drop and stomach unravels at the very thought of this.
pasta e patate
You could of course add pancetta or use stock of some kind if you really want.
enough for two
Peel the onion and carrot and then dice along with the celery. Peel and cut the potato into chunks. Warm some olive oil in a heavy based pan over a medium low heat, then fry the onion, carrot and celery (along with a pinch of salt) until soft and translucent. Add the bay leaf and the potatoes, stir and then fry for a couple of minutes more. Add a liter of water and another pinch of salt, bring to a lively simmer and the reduce to a gentle simmer for 15 mins or until the potato is soft – you can break it up sightly with back of a wood spoon. Add the pasta, raise the heat slightly and cook for another 10 minutes or so or until the pasta is cooked, stirring and adding a little more water if it looks to be getting too thick. Taste for salt and grind over some black pepper. Serve immediately with some grated pecorino stirred in if you like.
I have written about the Anna Tasca Lanza cooking school and Fabrizia Lanza before. The school holds a place in my heart and I feel fortunate to call Fabrizia a friend and teacher, to have collaborated with her and Luisa for the first Language of Food Workshop, which we will be repeating next year. It was during the Language of Food this June over merry, boozy dinners and during long conversations at the table in the library that Luisa and I were to witness the bubbling away of a new project. This project has now come to fruition and feels like the culmination and natural progression of Fabrizia’s work as a teacher and educator. It is called Cook the Farm and will allow Fabrizia and others to work intensively with young chefs and food professionals who are keen to bridge the gap between farming and cooking. The project is beautiful and important, which is why I am writing about it here.
As a food writer who – like many before me – has come to love the food of Italy and become obsessed with trying to find out more about it, I have always felt pulled south to Sicily. This of course is also to do with the fact I live with a Sicilian, for whom the pull home is as fierce as that for a freshly fried arancina filled with ragu , peas and mozzarella. For me Sicily is where the fundamental elements; olive oil, grapes, vegetables, wheat, honey, citrus, nuts , cheese, seem to make most sense, in a complicated way, which is why I go back again and again, which isn’t always straightforward. Cook the Farm is a residential ten week course in the beating heart of Sicily. Each week will concentrate on one of the elements which flourish in Sicily – wheat, cheese, olive oil, wine, honey and citrus and nuts as well as garden horticulture, culinary anthropology, and a comparative Mediterranean case study on Turkish cuisine. There will be hands-on kitchen and garden workshops, lectures, local field trips, and a one-week culinary journey around the island. Guest experts include professors, culinary and horticultural specialists, local artisans, and if all goes well one of the most inspiring young winemakers on the planet, Arianna Occhipinti. I am biased I know and possibly starting to sound like a bad brochure. If you are interested – truly interested, this is serious commitment in every sense – the best thing is to go over to the site, or talk to Elke or Fabrizia. You could even drop me a note if you want to know more about the school, or simply talk about warm ricotta, tomatoes from Pachino, durum wheat bread dusted with sesame seeds, Sicilian olive oil and a glass of Frappato, nothing technical you understand, just how delicious it all is.
Meanwhile on another note, does anyone remember egg in a cup, or is it choppy egg? Either way I have written about this delicious thing for the Guardian Cook’s special egg supplement, also Mozzarella in Carozza, you can read both here along with lots of other good ideas for eggs. More soon. R
A section of the motorway has given up, a pylon buckling and the road dipping into depression. It has been closed for months now. This means that to travel from Palermo to Gela, a journey from one side of Sicily to the other, buses have to take a mountain detour. Luca and I had already done the detour two days before, but at the back of the bus, both of us drifting in and out of twitchy sleep that managed to be both air-conditioned and hot. Last Saturday however, Luca chose the front seat and a lunch of gelato di pistacchio sandwiched in warm, doughy brioche and espresso, several espressos, ensured we were wide awake as we swerved from the autostrada up into the mountains.
‘Matri mia‘ said the man across the aisle from us when the driver took a hairpin curve, the bus feeling too tall and wide for such a narrow road. Then the man chuckled. He chuckled again at the next curve – which really did feel as if we were going to fly off the mountain – when Luca shouted Mamma mia. His name was Giuseppe, but everyone called him Peppe. He had been living in Milan for 45 years, had two plastic hips and a great-grandson Luca’s age. He was making the trip he makes each September to his home town of Gela for La Festa (the celebration) which I knew to be La Festa della Madonna. ‘Was I getting off at Piazza Armerina? he asked. Piazza Armerina is a particularly charming town. He really laughed when I told him I was also going to Gela, and explained it was my partner Vincenzo’s home town too, that we had partly inherited his grandparents house and were spending the summer there. ‘I love my town, but it isn’t an easy town, and Sicily isn’t an easy island. Do you know that?’ he asked. I told him I did. ‘Not easy, but beautiful’ he said, before turning to look out of the window.
As the bus began making its way back down the other side of the mountain, Ligabue woa-oh-ohing out of the bus radio, Giuseppe plays the guide, Scillato, Parco delle Madonie, Leonforte and Enna in the distance. Back on the autostada we pass fields of wheat scorched by the sun, mountains caped by dark green forest, olive trees their twisted trunks clinging tenaciously to rocky hillsides, almond, fig and carob trees, what I imagine are some sort of broccoli, verdant stripes of vines so laden with swollen grapes we can see the bunches from the bus. Bella bella bella bella la Sicilia Giuseppe seems to sing. He is right. Thrilling too, full of drama with her summits and curves, her sheer abundance, but somehow not showoffy. ‘It is rich land, but difficult land, do you know that?’ Giuseppe asks even more insistently than before. I nod, then we all nod off to Celine Dion.
‘Ecco‘ (here) Giuseppe says abruptly raising both his palms upwards and waking Luca and I. We look up to see the two vast chimneys of Gela’s oil refinery, one checked like a formula one flag, the other striped like Pippi Long-stocking’s socks, in the distance, behind them the sea which stretches to Africa. He asks if I know the story of the refinery. I tell him I do, a little.’ It is an important story’ he says, before catching sight of a bank of fichi d’india, exotic cactus hands covered with terrible little spikes and peachy red fruit. ‘When I was a boy I was the fastest at picking fichi, without gloves’. I try to imagine little Giuseppe, fearless in the face of the treacherous little spines – and they are treacherous – grabbing, then gorging on the sweet, red flesh and many black seeds. In that moment, I want fichi. Before long we are driving into the bleak, parched outskirts of Gela, and glad we are about it too.
We must have pulled into Gela bus station – which is actually the old train station – at about six. ‘Matri mia’ said Guiseppe as we stepped off the bus into the oppressive, clinging heat. I later learn it was one of the hottest days of the year. While we were waiting to pull our bags from the belly of the bus, Guiseppe stamps his foot – which makes me worry about his hip – and says something I didn’t quite understand, but guessed was about being home and even the car park being beautiful. We are standing next to building half of which has simply collapsed, its rubble remains now providing a home for dozens and dozens of bags of rubbish amongst which weeds reach desperately for the sky. Giuseppe’s lift arrived. ‘Did we need one too?’My sad legs needed movement after nearly four hours on a bus with a nearly four-year old draped over them, so I thanked him, but said we would walk. As the car pulled away I felt a bit bereft and wished I had accepted the lift.
To get to Via Mazzini from the station, you have to pass Gela’s modest football stadium, on the wall of which is painted a mural. Brash, but pleasing, the mural tells the story of this ancient city in Southeast Sicily, one of the oldest continually inhabited, a story which twists like a mountain road. There is a picture of the boats bringing the colonists from Rhodes and Crete in 688Bc under whom a newly founded city flourished. Another of the Carthaginians sacking the city into ruin. Columns reminds us of the Roman domination and the fact the Arabs called Gela the city of Columns. There is a picture of Frederick II – looking a little like Paul Newman – who refounded the city in 1233 as Terranova, beside him golden fields of wheat and vines. There are allied forces landing on beaches during Operation Husky in World War II. Next a picture of Enrico Mattei, the head of Eni who drove the industrial expansion plan which saw the building of a vast oil refinery in the plainly beautiful bay of Gela, which was meant to help the economy of the region. Which it did, very briefly, but in the long-term caused an unmanageable swelling of the population and terrible social problems. There is a picture of a soldiers and sandbags reminding of the measures needed to try and rid the area of violent mafia presence in the 80’s, something Vincenzo and his parents remember all too well. The last section of the mural are words, in English, ‘Looking to the future’.
I wonder if I should feel sheepish about mentioning a mural, superb graffiti on the side of a football stadium in a backstreet of Gela. Surely I should be writing of the scholarly things that helped me to think about the city with which I now have a connection. But it was the mural we passed most days in our Fiat Panda, in front of which three lads sell peaches out of a van, which gave me the best sense of the great sweeping story of Gela this first visit. This sense was what I needed in a city I so keenly wanted to love, but found confusing and upsetting at first. The bold pictures had me thinking about a land so desirable to colonists and industrialists, nudged us to seek out the ancient city wall in the narrow, claustrophobic heart of the old city – which is quietly beautiful and intriguing if you give it time – to explore backstreets, shops, hidden churches. It was the mural that ignited my curiosity about Frederick II (who in my mind looks exactly like Paul Newman) of the bespectacled and brilliant Enrico Mattei, to think and then talk with Vincenzo’s cousins and people I met about the past and future. I have to keep reminding myself this is the first trip of many.
Sweeping histories and the everyday, which involved cooking in Vincenzo’s Grandmothers kitchen, which is as it was when it was built by his grandfather in 1934, bar some 1960’s cupboards, and an early 90’s radiator. It is a room full of memories and stories that live on in cracks and weary hinges, floor tiles so trodden the pattern is all but gone, in the plates and pans that really do come from another time. Before cooking though, there was shopping. Gela no longer has a central market, simply a dispersed one, that plays out on corners, pavements, from people’s front doors and garages. Like many of the world’s most abundant, overflowing, richest markets, Gela is one where the sprectre of poverty hovers. Vegetables dense with flavour and character, and deeply coloured fruit of back-breaking labour are sold by the kilo or case and cost almost nothing. In August, a searingly hot one, we find late tomatoes, crates and crates of them, that taste so resolutely like tomatoes it is disconcerting, figs that taste like honey, and aubergines, some pendulous and black as night, others round and pale purple, that are dense and creamy. There are small trucks and car boots full of peaches whose sweet flesh is the colour of a desert sunset, meter long cucuzze, great floppy bunches of squash greens with tendrils and onions the size of cricket balls. By September there are grapes and more grapes, the kind that burst in your mouth and almost taste drunken. Even without eating grapes, I feel drunk on it all. It all seems ideal, until Vincenzo’s cousin reminds me that it isn’t, between the good farmers, workers, middle men and opportunists, the good and the not-so-good-stuff, you need to know where to go.
Vincenzo’s grandfather was a farmer who cultivated grapes, tomatoes, artichokes and cotton. He was proud and good farmer, one of the few who didn’t abandon the fields to go to work for the oil refinery, who survived relatively well off his land. He was proud of what he grew honestly. It was fitting then that we were to find to Rosa, whose husband farms land almost precisely where Vincenzo’s grandfather did, near the border of Vittoria. It was like being let in on a secret. It isn’t a really a shop, but the garage under her house from which Rosa sells what her husband grows. Rosa is plump and lovely, her blue eyes accentuated by the thick stripe of pale blue eyeshadow. She invites proximity. At 9 o clock the garage is full, as keen-eyed Gelese wait for Rosa’s husband, another Giuseppe, to arrive from the fields and unload what he has just picked. The shop smells deeply of vegetables and faintly of the bleach Rosa uses to slosh the floor clean each night. I take to visiting Rosa most mornings, coming home with bags of joyous, vigorous produce that needs taming – but not too much – into lunch.
Then it feels like dominoes. In Rosa’s garage we meet the brother of the shepherd who with a nod from Rosa opens up the boot of his car to sell warm sheep’s milk ricotta that flouts EU rules that would prefer we bought pasteurized stuff from the supermarket. It is the cheese guy who tells me about the bakery under a house in Via Garibaldi were we find the durum wheat flour loaves dusted with sesame seeds of Vincenzo’s childhood. It is the baker who tells us where to get the best late night Arancine, and so it goes on. There are lots of stories.
On our last night in Sicily was September 8th, La Festa della Madonna dell’Alemanna, the patron saint of Gela, We walk to Vincenzo’s cousins house on Via Magnuco, the family name, and one of the streets down which the procession passes. As a rule this street is strung with faded cotton and washing which whips in the breeze. Today there is not even a dishcloth to be seen, and everyone seems to have scrubbed their bit of pavement. We had already seen the Madonna in the church earlier, a Byzantine painting of Madonna and child at the center of a gold frame with cut-out heavenly rays and moulded cherubs. Having been carried from the church by a group of chosen men, who run disconcertingly fast down the steps, the Madonna is propped up on platform with a motor and steering wheel. She is then is driven round the town, preceded by three altar boys, two carabineri with plumes and three priests, one almost singing prayers into a microphone. A lengthy procession of the faithful follow behind. Those who have a house on one of the blessed streets, watch from their balconies. You can feel the excitement and anticipation in the air, but people move with quiet purpose, this isn’t Naples. Vincenzo’s cousin is very proud of the light he has set up from the balcony to illuminate the already illuminated madonna. I understand so little about it all, about the sequence of blessings all over the city, to new-born babies, citizens, farmers, fishermen, mills, industry, the land. I hardly understand a word of the prayers through a speaker phone and the collective response, but find the whole thing extremely moving. Just behind the Madonna, I see a figure wearing a dark suit and white shirt waving, at me. It takes me a minute. Then I realise the man waving with one hand, his other hand on his heart, is my bus companion Peppe.
Zuppa di Tenerumi e Cucuzze – Sicilian squash and squash greens soup.
Cucuzza is a long, pale-green, thick-skinned, Sicilian squash, which has a creamy, extremely mild flavour, in fact the Sicilians have an expression which says something along the lines of you can dress it up all you want, but it is still only cucuzza. Tenerumi are the greens of the cucuzza (stems, leaves and tendril like shoots) which have a tender, slightly sweet flavor, like peas shoots and hairy grass. The idea is simple. You cook the tenerumi briefly in lightly salted boiling water, which produces a green-tinted, gently flavoured broth. You then sauté onions, garlic, diced cucuzza, potato and tomatoes in plenty of olive oil to which you add, first cooked the greens, then the broth, and then some broken spaghetti. The result is a simple, brothy minestra. It is undoubtedly plain, a good example of what the Sicilians describe as cucina povera (poor cooking), but I think it pure tasting and delicious, and now understand why it is one of Vincenzo’s favourite things. While we were in Gela, Vincenzo’s cousin served this soup without spaghetti but over bread and topped with a poached egg, which was dead good and reminded me of the Acquacotta from Maremma. Sicilians serve this soup, not hot or cold, but lukewarm, possibly with a little more olive oil on top. An alternative to cucuzza and tenrumi are courgettes and their greens. I am convinced this would also work with other greens and now I am back in Rome will be experimenting away. As always, treat this recipe as a template, not a set of rules, and taste as you cook.
Trim the tenerumi/squash greens of all their tough stems and largest leaves so you have tender manageable pieces with only the smallish leaves. In a large pan, bring 1.5 litres of lightly salted water to a fast boil then add the greens and boil for 2 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to lift out the greens and set aside. Bring the water back to the boil. Plunge the tomatoes in for a minute, remove with a slotted spoon, cool in cold water at which point the skins should come away easily. Chop the tomatoes roughly on a plate to catch juices.
Peel and dice the onion, Peel the garlic and gently crush it with the back of a knife so it remains intact. In soup pan, or deep saute pan, warm the olive oil over a medium/low flame and then add the onion, garlic and a pinch of salt and saute gently until the onion is soft and translucent and the garlic fragrant. Peel and dice the potato and cucuzze/courgette and add it to the pan. Stir so each piece is well coated with oil. Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring then with a wooden spoon so they break up. Now add the tenenrumi or squash greens, stir before adding approx 1 litre of the green cooking water and a good pinch of salt, Bring to a lively simmer, then reduce to a blip blip simmer for 25 mins. Taste for salt.
Bring the soup to the gentlest boil, add the broken spaghetti and cook until the spaghetti is tender. It should be nice and soupy so you may want to add more greens water if you feel the spaghetti is absorbing too much water as it cooks.