April 25, 2015

Bucatini with Vignarola and Burrata

It occurred to me that I never mentioned on this space that a few months ago I have started writing a bi-monthly column for Italian paper Corriere della Sera. I am in great company of two talented and just plain fantastic women and fellow bloggers, Valentina, and Emiko, and I am humbled and honored to be part of this group. The column, you guessed it, focuses on market-to-table eating and seasonal, simple recipes loaded with produce, and very much inspired by the Italian way of eating and cooking. Written in Italian, the column feels a lot like the extension of Life Love Food after I dropped bi-lingual posts on this space. That said, the plan is to start writing the articles for the column in English as well as Italian, so that everybody can read and hopefully enjoy the recipes. For now, I wanted to share some favourites here, too.

Onto the recipe. The decadence and totally over-the-top nature of this pasta is what makes it so very good. I don't say this lightheartedly: usually Italian recipes are very much about the 'less is more' approach, and this is what I love about them the most. Yet, sometimes, piling it all up high is just the right thing to do. In the case of this recipe, for example, it works. 

The base is a Roman-inspired spring concoction called vignarola. This is a dish made of fresh peas, broad beans, artichokes, sometimes lettuce, sometimes fresh herbs, others bits of guanciale for extra flavour - all braised in oil and white wine until tender and utterly flavoursome. Vignarola is often served on bread, which has the double pourpose of carrier, and of sponge for absorbing the delightful juices left at the end. You can sometimes find vignarola served alongside some fresh ricotta, but mostly, it can hold the stage on its own. 

The inspiration for serving vignarola on pasta came after a meal I had last year while visiting Rome around Easter. Rachel (who happens to have just written about it, beautifully as always) had invited us for a lunch at Cesare al Casaletto in Monteverde, and after a round of antipasti, my tonnarelli alla vignarola arrived. I was hooked. The sweet, oily juice in which the vegetables had stewed made the perfect seasoning for the fresh, slightly chewy ribbons of pasta. A generous topping of grated pecorino, melted into the hot pasta, with a little help from some starchy cooking water, added a dose of addictive saltiness and creaminess to the whole. It all disappeared in a shamefully short amount of time. 

I didn't get to try and reproduce the dish at home until this year, but as soon as the first peas and broad beans made their appearance at the market, I knew what was for dinner. Instead of tonnarelli I used fresh bucatini, another classic Roman pasta shape that is easier to come across. And instead of pecorino, I finished the pasta with some burrata. This might sound odd and totally untraditional - it is. Burrata is a cheese from Puglia and, logically, it doesn't have much room in Roman dishes. Yet, I think it works wonders here. It adds creaminess without stealing the main scene from the vegetables; it makes the dish rich yet incredibly fresh tasting and - dare I say - light. Finally, it cools down the temperature of the pasta a bit, making this a great meal option for when spring days start warming up and the food on our plate cool down. You can of course skip the pasta and just enjoy the vignarola with come good bread and a burrata on the side. 

Bucatini with Vignarola and Burrata

The picture above is just illustrative of the various ingredients, but you might want to achieve a more blended result by stirring the burrata with the pasta in the skillet for a few seconds. 

Serves 2

250g fresh bucatini (or 200g dry)
70g fresh shelled peas
70g fresh shelled broad beans
2 medium artichokes
1 lemon
2 spring onions
1 small bunch of fresh parsley
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
75 ml (about 1/3 cup) dry white wine
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 burrata of 125g

Start by cleaning the artichokes. Cut the lemon in half and keep it handy. Snap the outer, tough leaves until you reach the pale, tender heart. Using a small serrated knife, cut off the tips of the artichokes and three quarters of the stem, then score the remaining leaves in a sort of spiral. Remove the tough remaining of the outer leaves at the bottom of the choke, then peel the stalk to reveal the white core. At every passage, squeeze some lemon onto the artichokes to prevent them from oxidating and darkening. Cut the artichokes in halves and remove any hairy choke in the middle, then cut each half in three. Squeeze more lemon, then set aside. Prepare the spring onions by washing them thoroughly and slicing them thinly, discarding the green part. 

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. In a large skillet, heat the oil, then add the sliced onion and fry gently over medium heat until translucent and fragrant. Now, add the artichokes and stir well. Allow to colour on all sides for four or five minutes, then pour in the wine. Let it evaporate for a couple of minutes, stirring the vegetables every now and then, then cover with a lid and let them soften for about 10-12 minutes.

After this time, remove the lid and add the peas and broad beans. Let them cook for three minutes, stirring frequently. When done, turn off the heat and keep aside, warm.

Cook your pasta in plenty of boiling water until very al dente. Reserve a couple of spoonfuls of cooking water, than drain the pasta and add it to the skillet with the vegetables. Revert all to medium- high heat, add the pasta water and finish cooking the pasta in the skillet, until all the juices have been absorbed and result in a creamy sauce. Add a handful of choppe parsley, then the roughly broken burrata. Give the whole one more good toss, then serve immediately.


April 8, 2015

Monk's Beard, Anchovy Butter and Egg

I am obsessed with beards.

Monk's beard – the strange, charming, totally addictive green that comes in nourished bunches with plenty of grits attached – is my current religion. The fact that its season is almost finished kills me but, at the same time, it makes me happy. It feels liberating, like I can finally move on onto the next obsessive compulsive seasonal eating craze. Two more weeks or so, and I'll be free.

But for now, and for the past two months to date, monk's beard has been a very frequent guest at our table. We've eaten it simply blanched and tossed in oil and lemon, then served alongside stupid easy and terribly satisfying slices of toasted bread with butter and anchovies. We've eaten it in multiple takes with spaghetti – either sauteed in a puddle of strongly-scented anchovy butter, then topped with a landslide of fried breadcrumbs; or with clams and lots of lemon zest. In both cases, the green strands of monk's beard would entangle with the pasta creating an unbreakable marriage of complementary flavours and textures. What a great little thing it is.

But what is monk's beard, anyway? It's a salt-tolerant plant that loves growing along the Mediterranean coast, or in general along shores located in temperate climates. The fact that it loves salt gives it its unique flavour, which is, uhm, salty, but also a bit sour (the Italian name is agretti, which literally means 'little sours'), umami, mineral, and kind of spinach-like, and just absolutely dependence-inducing. In the past, it was used to extract soda ash for making glass (the Latin name is indeed Salsola Soda). Now that they have figured out a better way to make glass, people can finally eat it, and thank goodness for that.

April 1, 2015

Carciofi alla Romana

We entered the deli in via Marmorata, in the bustling Roman neighbourhood of Testaccio, short after noon. A well-nourished crowd of locals was populating the tiny space, raising their voices to make themselves heard by the people serving behind the counter. All were waiting, more or less impatiently, to be served their daily dose of pecorino, guanciale, ricotta, and pizza bianca. We joined the crowd, famished after an early rise and a long train journey.

We had left Orbetello at the break of dawn, heading to Roma Ostiense for the second part of our Easter break; eyes still full of the sunsets and rocks and clouds and stars and green mountains and waves of Argentario, of Cala Piccola. Easter was just behind us. A good Easter, spent strolling up and down the island, tanning in the terrace, eating Marco's brilliant octopus with chickpeas, my humble artichoke salad with loads of Parmesan and oil and lemon, slice after slice of Emiko's polenta and pistachio cake, drinking crisp Inzonica from the island, looking at the sea just out of the window. 

Short after dropping our bags in the little Roman apartment, nestled in a very picturesque and timeless-looking courtyard – one of the many facing the Testaccio branch of the Tiber – we headed out in search for something to eat. Testaccio is a great place to be for food, as good traditional trattorias, street food branches, delis, markets and bars aren't short in the neighbourhood. From our previous Roman trip, we vaguely remembered there was a good deli on the main road linking the river to the Pyramid. Our well-seasoned plan was to just walk until we stumbled upon it. We eventually did, and recognised it immediately for the bountiful displays of preserves, hams and whole cheeses in the window. And so, we joined the not-so-orderly queue, and started to think about what we wanted for lunch.


March 15, 2015

Pickled Rhubarb

I remember my surprise when I first saw rhubarb at the farmers market on a Saturday in May of three years ago. It was the kind that grows outdoors and has big, bright green leaves and dark magenta stalks tinged with green and maroon. It was a beautiful thing to see, and I was excited to start cooking from it – not necessarily because the flavour excited me, but rather for the novelty it held. That same day, I made my first rhubarb crumble. Plain, immediate, uncomplicated and fulfilling. Followed by a rhubarb mess, and finally, a pot of stewed rhubarb and used to top yoghurt, muesli and porridge.

With the classics all pretty much covered, tried and tested multiple times, I recently started experimenting more with rhubarb preserves. I made a pretty nice jam, inspired by a pot given to me by my English aunt, who now lives in Italy, upon one of her visit to the homeland. I also made a syrup to mix into cocktails, particularly in gin tonics. It never occurred to me, however, that pickled rhubarb was a thing, which is a shame because it is so very good.

March 3, 2015

Lemony Chickpea 'n Green Soup

The truth is, my home cooking career hasn't been that long. It became solid and ongoing only when I left my home to go to University, and even then, it was more of a 'getting by'. I have been fed most of my life, and when my turn came and had to feed myself, I always went for convenience rather than creativity. I have never been motivated enough to cook an actual meal just for myself, let alone experiment with new recipes. I bought things that came together into some sort of meal easily and with minimum time and use of pots and pans. The empty sink, rather than a great dinner, was my ultimate goal when eating solo. It wasn't before I had a boyfriend that I started to cook more solidly and more adventurously. And in time, I discovered that I loved to feed as much as I loved to be fed. I loved seeing a smile on the person sitting in front of me – eyes closed while biting bits of what I had just cooked. I found it sensual and attractive and deeply romantic, and beautiful and a warming. A feeling of belonging. I discovered why people love to cook for others, and why sharing a meal makes the food so much better, and the effort so much more worthwhile.

Of all things I love to make for others (and myself), soup ranks high, mostly because I think I am pretty good at it. After all, it is such a forgiving dish, and such a nourishing and loving one. People feel cuddled when they are fed soup – there's no fuss on the table but just simple, home-y, good food. When I put a bowl of soup in front of them they relax; and I, constantly stressed by other's judgment, always trying to make a good impression, relax too. The fact that I like to make soup so much is part of the reason why I have a lot of 'soup moments' punctuating my life. On our first few dates, Jesse and I romantically shared pots of soup and bowls of salads in my tiny kitchen in Bra, or in his messy one next door, while chatting away at the end of a long day at school. In the one-of-its-kind school we went to – the school that made us meet – eating was part of the learning experience. We were often overfed, though, at times treated to large quantities of fantastic foods for days and days. We didn't complain, but we were craving just greens and fibres afterwards. Wholesome bowls of steamy, pork and cheese-free soup. We ate a lot of it in those two years.

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