June 17, 2015
'So you don't even eat...chicken?'
Grandma's inquisitive, bewildered eyes were moving slowly between my brother – who appeared to be shielding himself behind a tall chair – and the pot warming up on the stove.
Our casual visit had turned into a lunch invite. It had been a while. Far from being the weekly recurrence it once was, lunch at grandma's had become more of a special occasion reserved for New Years and Easter. We visited often, of course, spent some time and chatted for a good while, but we rarely stopped for a meal. We liked to tell ourselves the reason was that grandma was getting old, and that we didn't want to give her any extra work in the kitchen. We knew in fact that her hearty food was something to be had in moderation. That day, though, she convinced our reluctant selves to stay.
Grandma isn't a woman who could ever be taken by surprise. Her pantry was always well-stocked, her fridge was full, her garden bountiful, and you could stay assured she had cooked something for, at the very least, six people. That day, she emerged from the 'real kitchen' downstairs with a pot of chicken in red sauce she had probably started cooking at the break of dawn. I say the real kitchen because she had two. The one on the first floor (the part of the house she was living in) was barely used to make coffee and wash the dishes. The kitchen on the ground floor was the operative one. It was nothing more than the old kitchen – easily from the 1960s – she had previously upstairs. She had kept part of the cupboard, plus the stove and the oven, and had fitted it in a room downstairs. Despite the fact the hobs were ancient and could only be partially lit, she would stubbornly just want to cook there. It was, after all, the one she was truly familiar with. She still knew all the tricks to make it work the way she wanted.
When the chicken arrived upstairs, my brother grinned. He than said, as delicately as he was able to, that he had recently embraced a vegetarian diet. 'Didn't I tell you? I am pretty sure I did tell you. Yes, I told you last time I came', he said cautiously.
'So what? You do eat chicken anyway, right?'
'I've got fish. Tuna?'
'How about cheese'
'You can't just eat cheese. Don't be silly, just eat the chicken. This is my chick, one of those you see roaming outside' she said, pointing energetically outside the window. 'It's good.'
'I would rather not...Oh, whatever, fine'.
June 8, 2015
I am sorry. I haven't showed up here in a while and I am talking about the weather, boring you to death. I should rather be concerned that the last recipe I posted here is terribly old story. Artichokes have gone well out of season. Luckily, you might still find local, sweet tiny peas and fava beans that are small enough to be eaten raw, straight out of their verdant pods. Comes June, though, and I am happy to leave them on a side to make room for tomatoes, stone fruits, courgettes and beans.
For years June marked the end of the school year, and the beginning of a time that seemed to stretch infinitely. Long, sleepy days were filled with lots of reading and plenty of boredom – I now struggle to remember what that felt like. June also stated the beginning of the procession to Grandma's house to pick vegetables from her garden. As soon as the humid heat of the Venitian countryside had settled in for the following three months, the garden started to go bonkers in all possible good ways. Tomatoes and courgettes were popping up by the bagful, and required daily watering and harvesting. Green and runner beans could grow too big and stringy in a couple of hours, and the lettuce would turn tough and inedible if not cut promptly. The cucumbers, as long as my arm and almost as large, were also pretty needy, and the aubergines and peppers would become all wrinkly under the burning midday sun in a matter of minutes. In a mad rush against time, I was there almost every day, right before sunset or as soon as the temperature of the soil had decreased to a simmer rather than a boil. Each time, I was getting enough produce to make a side dish or salad for our family's evening meal, as well as for lunch the following day. Usually more. We certainly ate way beyond the five-a-day.
My favourite thing to harvest was lettuce: easy and straightforward, it would come off with one swing of the serrated knife. My least favourite: green beens. I found them tedious and requiring too much patience and discernment – was that one too small to pick still, or would it turn too fibrous if left on the plant longer? It truly took ages to make a bag full enough to feed a party of four, and as soon as the picking was done, there came the trimming, one by one, top and bottom. Not worth it. I thought runner beans (both white and green) were much less labour intensive – their larger size created more volume in my supermarket-branded plastic bag – and just as good as green beans. They quickly became my favourite.
Mum, just like grandma, used to steam them or boil them whole, usually cooking them until very soft – or shall I rather say 'to death', the Italian way. They were then served with oil and vinegar, and sometimes with some torn basil leaves, alongside some grilled chicken or fish. The addition of the vinegar was what always stroke me. Still lukewarm, the beans propagated a sour, pungent yet pleasant aroma mingling with the fresh sweetness of the basil. It smelled of summer in the best possible way. Nostalgically, I have been making runner beans in a similar way ever since I left home. In time, though, I discovered that I love them topped with fresh tarragon even more than with basil leaves. I don't really know why they go so well together. It might be the vague taste of anise and liquorice of tarragon, embracing the sweetness of the beans and saving them from the risk of monotony. All I can say is, it just works. Still, knowing that many people are not fond or tarragon – for anise is certainly a controversial flavour, just like fresh coriander - good young basil (the kind with small, tender leaves) is always a good alternative.
May 11, 2015
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.
April 8, 2015
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
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.