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.


February 23, 2015

Venetian-Style Artichokes

Elizabeth David has a recipe called Carfciofi alla Veneziana in her brilliant book Italian Food that had immediately captured my attention. I had just bought the book and I was flipping through the vegetables section – as I often do with most of my recipe books – looking for nothing in particular but rather some kind of cooking inspiration, and stopped at the sight of the word 'Venetian'. The recipe is short and simple, yet it sounded unfamiliar to me, a Venetian. I was intrigued.

The unfamiliarity might derive from the fact that in my Venetian family artichokes were somewhat disregarded. I believe my mum didn't particularly like them, or just didn't know how to prepare them, or maybe couldn't be bothered to clean them. Most likely it was a combination of the three, which made the appearance of artichokes spare and rare on our table. Admittedly, as a child I didn't love them either, possibly because of the way they were always, unmistakably presented to me: steamed, cut in half, with a bowl of oil and salt for dipping. Their colour, a shade between dark green, kaki and grey, was very unappealing.

At any rate, I ate them, I had to. So I watched my parents tackling them, trying to copy their technique – detaching one leaf at the time, starting from the outer layers, dipping each in the seasoning bowl, then scraping the pulp with the front teeth, and throwing the fibrous remaining on the plate. Repeating these same movements and gestures mechanically, almost ritually, again and again, until they reached the most inner, tender leaves, which could be eaten whole. Finally, the heart, pale green and creamy, sweet in a strange way. By the end of the meal, the plate was covered in grey-ish leafy ruins, the seasoning bowl emptied and slightly oily and messy. It seemed like so much effort for so little food.

No other ways of making artichokes made their way to our kitchen: neither raw, nor stewed, braised, in risotto, in pasta or frittata, and certainly not pickled or fried. I had no knowledge of the existing different varieties of this thistle, and certainly not of the regional differences, or the traditional, local way of eating them. Throughout the years, I ate them a handful of times, always at restaurants, always away from home, usually while travelling, often in Rome. The memory of my first fried artichoke alla Giudia (or Giudea), eaten at Nonna Betta in the Roman Jewish ghetto, is ingrained in my memory – the sight of it arriving to the table, the more-ish crisp outer leaves shielding a sweet, melting core. The flavour, the texture – what an epiphany. It came on a plate of its own, elegant in its sad, decadent beauty. It was a flower after all. Prepared this way, with its 'petals' wide open, you could really tell. This was the moment I fell in love with artichokes. I then ate them raw in salad with oil, lemon and Parmesan, and I ate them in Vignarola. Roman dishes, never Venetian, and most remarkably, never home-made.


February 2, 2015

Meyer Lemon Olive Oil Cake

We have been settling into January at the slowest possible pace, trying to hold onto that feeling we brought back from Italy. Calm. Peace of the mind. It didn't last long, but then catching the flu somehow forced me to step back, take it easy and slow down again. Even if against my will. I think of my body as a high-speed blender: it goes super fast for a while, then it gets too hot and the safety switch turns it off. Sorry for the awful metaphor.

Back on track. So many things happened in January that I barely saw these weeks pass by. We booked our trip to Tulum for late spring – I am excited like a puppy, and would love to hear your tips! – and spent many evenings on AirBnb shortlisting apartments. In town at the beach, pool no pool, hammock or sun chair, taxi or car, bike or walking...We have also been preparing by indulging in one too many homemade margaritas mixed with whatever citrus was lingering in the fruit bowl. We liked the blood orange version a lot. 

Anyway, after a first week of flu-foods – mostly white rice with lots of oil and Parmesan – the kitchen regained its full swing, with a consequent chronically overflowing sink stacked with dirty dishes. Some new projects also came up and kept me on my feet during weekends, but also left me with plenty of food to have for dinner. Still, weekends have been resting after all. I finally had the chance to meet two very talented women, in two new-to-me places that have immediately become personal favourites. For the rest, there was a lot of sitting around flipping old cookbooks and staying inspired, trying to leave the fear of missing out behind us.

What else? I spent two extraordinarily rainy days in Cornwall, where my first thought was 'Don't get pneumonia', my second 'When are we eating?', but eventually left aching for more. Maybe I'll go back in June, when the sun is shining and flowers abound and there are berries and rhubarb, and we can enjoy the sea. We also almost went to Cambridge on Saturday, but decided to change our tickets as we woke up to a snowfall, and resumed turning on the oven and staying cosy with coffee and cake. This cake. The kind of cake my mum would make, the only one she knew how to make besides crostata. The kind of cake where you would use a small pot of yogurt as a measurement for the rest of the ingredients. But a cake that has also some uniqueness in its classic form – and an eclectic background. If you are still with me, thank you. I promise I am getting to the point.

So. The thought of this cake started early this month, while chatting with Mehrunnisa at the London Book Review Cake Shop: she ordered the lemon rosemary olive oil cake, I chose the almond orange cake; but the thought of making a cake with lemon and olive oil and rosemary stayed with me since. For a stroke of luck, a few days later I  had my first encounter with Meyer lemons: a revelation. A citrus with herbal notes of thyme and oregano ingrained in its skin – something so Mediterranean I could smell the sea all over it. The price (and limited availability) of this precious citrus forced me to be moderate in my purchase, and considerate in its uses. This is when the thought of that lemon rosemary olive oil cake came back, and started to take an unusual shape.

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