Longing for the Autumn and the artichoke season

October 31, 2019

October is a funny month in Rome. It plays its jokes since the early hours of the day and doesn’t seem to stop.

Mornings in particular take me by surprise. All of the sudden after having left the apartment and closed the front door I stop and start to fight with my thoughts. The thoughts being signals and a reaction of my body to my fairly inadequate attire for the big and sudden dip in temperature.

I don’t always make a u-turn to go back for a light jacket (that after a long Summer I have probably forgotten where to even find) or a sweater to cover myself. It just feels odd with the clear blue skies.

It is also a strange feeling to start wearing closed shoes, not to mention socks. Weeks and weeks of being spoiled by wearing just sandals have come to an end and the first days of facing wearing proper shoes seem like a struggle. But then, like with everything, one gets used to it and of course to the changing weather seasons.

I must admit that I was looking forward to Autumn this year, for the temperatures to become gentler and pleasant again (the summer this year was incredibly hot in Rome).

Deep inside I was already longing for proper comfort food, for a creamy and rich soup with pasta or spelt, pasta tossed with a rich pecorino sauce, meat stews or what have you. I was particularly missing cosy afternoons spent sipping tea and indulging in autumnal tarts. I think tarts and simple cakes with an emphasis on just a few ingredients are our favourite kind of pudding. I just couldn’t wait to start using sweetened chestnut cream (you can buy it all ready prepared for you in a jar or you may want to spend some rewarding time and make it from scratch), walnuts, chestnut flower, hazelnuts that I tend to bring from the Langhe region of Piedmont, pears and the last of the plums. Sadly figs disappeared with the first heavy rain (and much needed) after August. As a result I didn’t manage to bake a lot with figs this season. Instead we had them fresh either with cheese or in a fruit salad which was the most sensible thing to do given the summer temperatures. There will always be next year and something to look forward to.

Speaking about something to look forward to. There are two restaurants in the Testaccio area of Rome that I was impatiently waiting to visit.

One of the first October Sunday lunches I booked us a table at Trattoria Perilli. It is a very well frequented place but mainly by the locals. It was for the first time in Rome where we found ourselves the only foreigners in the restaurant at a given time. I am not trying to say that you will always find that kind of crowd over there, but certainly on most occasions. Maybe it has something to do with the reservation system, my calls never being answered despite numerous attempts. I would advise to book especially for certain days of the week, if you can. The place is known for it’s very traditional Roman food and I was recommended it for it’s l’amatriciana, the Dègustateur’s favourite. During one of those days when he was away I thought I would arrange a lovely surprise for him. I decided to walk and book a table in person. I didn’t feel angry or disappointed not being able to make the reservation over the phone. I love walking and I don’t take public transport in Rome. It doesn’t work as badly as is rumoured, at least if we are having the tube in mind.

I had a wonderful early afternoon quiet and peaceful stroll along the river. The water hadn’t looked better in a long while. Dramatic contrast of the blue skye, the lime tree leaves slowly turning yellow and the sun hiding every few minutes made my walking experience as if I was falling in love in Rome (again).

The following Sunday it was the tonnarelli a cacio e pepe turn, my favourite. Since the lunch was already fully booked (as I was politely informed over the phone) we took our chances and turned up for the opening of its evening shift. We were very lucky and so happy. It takes almost one hour by foot to get there therefore you can imagine why we were so excited.This restaurant is particularly famous (very much so among tourist as well) for its cacio e pepe pasta (cheese and pepper pasta). It sounds very simple, perhaps even too simple but it is like no other. The secret is in the sauce, its consistency and the choice of pecorino cheese.

I absolutely love the theatre of having the tonnarelli stirred with grated cheese right in front of me. I am always amazed how hot the pasta remains after all that stirring and building up of the sauce. Well, that is the secret of Felice a Testaccio and I believe it is best if it stays that way. Whilst writing this post I am already thinking when to go back there next. The correct answer is as soon as possible. I feel so greedy.

There is also this lovely unassuming artisan ice cream place in Testaccio that we stop at after our scrumptious meals. We enjoy our ice cream while slowly making our way back home. The Dègustateur likes it so much that under the pretext of going back to those restaurants he is actually craving for that ice cream. I don’t blame him, it is exquisite. There are just a few flavours to choose from, the display is minimal and the containers are all covered up to maintain the right temperature. Exactly how it should be. I am saddened at times seeing tourist queuing and getting big gelato portions at places where the vast choice of extravagantly and unnaturally coloured ice-cream is on the display all day long. That feeling is particularly strong when a proper gelateria is almost next to it. The following is so true and still valid (maybe even more these days) “don’t judge a book by its cover”.

My Italian tutor Diana has recently recommended a Tuscan restaurant to me just off Di Trevi Fountain. She was quite wary when referring to it. The reason being is the very common misconception and belief that all the restaurants, trattorias, coffee bars and so on right next to major tourist spots must be bad. Bad because they just don’t have to try hard, they will always have enough crowds passing by, tend to use inferior ingredients not to mention about precision and execution of a dish. In most of the cases it is true. But there are historic places however, that are still maintaining their standards, are known for good and honest food that the Romans are dining at. With time you learn and just know where to go and it has been such fun exploring Rome for us.

We loved our Tuscan meal. Every course we had was exceptional. It was the first time that I had tried a beef filet with an apple and cinnamon puree with more baked apples to accompany it. What an autumnal meal we had. The Dègustateur’s pumpkin cream soup with burnt garlic, cavolo nero cabbage and crispy bacon was a pure work of art. I make a similar pumpkin soup at home. It is with chestnuts and crispy bacon on top as well. When I buy a pumpkin I have to think of making a few meals out of it. This vegetable of varied different shapes is so generous and giving.

One of my favourite fillings for pasta parcels is pumpkin, amaretti and mostarta. It is something of a real treat, not Roman at all. I either prepare them myself or I can find them not too far from home, just off Piazza Barberini.

Once I’ve mastered the art of making risotto I am no longer shy and reach out for new flavour combinations. Pumpkin and cinnamon is a match made in heaven and it was in Venice some time ago where I had this heavenly comforting pumpkin risotto finished with a few pinches of cinnamon for the first time. I’d say a must try for those who don’t know it yet.Now since the Autumn has arrived the Dègustateur being English feels like having a roast chicken for a Sunday lunch and I happily make it for him. Personally I find cooking with just chicken legs more rewarding and subsequently resulting in richer and more complex flavours. On that note a couple of weeks ago I made a chicken fricassee with mustard, vinegar and thyme. Served it with a cauliflower purèe, cooked cannellini beans with bacon and roast potatoes for an extra crunch. Proper comfort food that we all love.

October in Rome has still been spoiling us with temperatures in the mid 20’s C. It feels ‘too early’ for my scrumptious beef bourguignon but I can already feel that the ‘right’ days are arriving.

Usually at this time of year we head to Piedmont to enjoy copious amounts of porcini mushrooms and more modest amounts of truffles. Due to bad weather conditions with great sadness we decided to cancel our trip. I have been feeling very nostalgic and longing for the produce of Piedmont and its overwhelming flavours. As a consequence we devoured home made sweet specialities of that region like bonèt, panna cotta, hazelnut and chestnut tart or baci di dama, which are two hazelnut biscuits joined together with a layer of chocolate. One of best possible combinations on earth. Baking and cooking with hazelnuts (from the Langhe) always seems rather extravagant but once you start treating yourself to theses particular gems you will never want to stop.

Italian desserts are not particularly showy like their French counterparts. They focus on one or two ingredients playing the main part. One of these examples is a walnut and caramel (you can make a salted caramel too which is divine) tart. So simple yet so rewarding. Serve it with a dollop of vanilla ice cream and you will be in heaven.

Autumn brings more delicious news. The artichoke. At the moment their season has not fully started yet and there are still a few more weeks to go in Lazio. However, I have already had a taste of them in the Roman restaurants in Testaccio. I couldn’t wait any longer. They are somewhat of a real delicacy here and they were divine (restaurants always have a good supplier), exactly as I remembered them from the last time, way before summer. Carciofi alla Romana are not to be missed. Another way of preparing them in Rome is alla Gudia, of course best eaten in the Jewish Quarter itself. They are first cooked in olive oil and then fried in a separate pan. The leaves are meant to be crunchy and snapped one by one with your fingers while the artichoke heart stays soft and tender to be enjoyed at the very end.

There are so many dishes involving carciofi (artichokes) that I want to cook as soon as possible and share them with you here on Hai Mangiato: artichokes with prawns and pasta, or buttery artichoke risotto, veal meat balls with artichokes to begin with. The sea of ideas, like a well without a bottom that still has to wait to give its goodness.


Home sweet home

September 25, 2019

It is always so delightful to be back. It feels so good to be home, in your bed, in your kitchen, in your space.

Over the passing years I have grown very fond of shorter trips. Just a few days away to change the ambiance, taste new food and wine or to come back to the places that already hold a special place in our hearts, fill us with comfort and bring a big smile to our faces.
When we are absent for a longer period of time, even the dreamiest place can’t stop me from developing the feeling of longing and nostalgia. At least I used to feel that way until our recent summer trips. Somehow there seems to always be a turning point, mainly when least expected. I could translate it that we really had a wonderful time away this year, the time that you want to hold on to for longer, the precious feeling of absolute happiness that you want to last for ever.We spent a magical week in Sicily to start our summer. Upon reflection I think it was our best trip to Sicily so far. Having gained valuable experience travelling and commuting across Italy, many things have become a lot easier by now. The kind of confidence that you can gain only with time and practice. We both feel very lucky and privileged to have been able to experience that as well as to live in Italy.

Summer this year has been incredibly hot in Rome and it is only now, during the first days of September that we can experience rain, lower temperatures, short lived thunderstorm with their extremely loud and bright lightening. Simultaneously there is always a high level of humidity that accompanies them.

The Romans use the word l’afa to combine the atmospheric conditions like excessively high temperatures, high levels of humidity and the absence of wind in one. One word that sums it up perfectly and which I use occasionally (this year more than I would have liked) over the months of July and August.

Puglia, a vast region at the bottom of the so-called Italian boot, was our home for a while during August. Itria Valley is one of the most iconic and extraordinary examples of folk architecture. That is where we stayed, in a small, cosy dry stone hut with a conical roof. We also had a very good sized swimming pool which helped to beat the heat, a lovely garden with generously planted herbs and a fantastic outdoor grill, something that the Dègustateur truly loves. I happily let him set the fire, grill the food prepared by myself and clean it afterwards of course.

It wasn’t our first visit to Puglia. The first time we visited the region was at the very beginning of our move to Rome in late January almost four years ago. We didn’t even have our belongings with us yet, just two suitcases of clothes. When I look back upon that trip with the perspective of time I am certain that we feel more comfortable and confident wherever we go in Italy right now. Having learnt the language undoubtedly has helped. Fortunately I was already able to communicate in Italian since the very beginning but that certain degree of fluency, understanding and cheekiness you can only gain with time. We had stayed in Lecce, a splendid baroque town with its streets kissed by the afternoon’s golden light. It was lovey and quiet. A low season that we almost always try to take the advantage of. I can still remember the taste of a very decadent and representative pasticciotto leccese, an oval shaped pastry filled with indulgent rich pastry cream. The pastry casing traditionally calls for strutto (lard) to be used. I’ve made a few attempts at home and I am cognisant of the fact that I still have a few touches to improve on. But that doesn’t worry me because I do believe that certain delights somehow taste best in the places where they belong. All I have left now is to come back to Lecce I guess. The pasticciotti can be found in Rome of course, however they are never the same, as perhaps they never will be.

I absolutely loved grocery shopping in Aberobello that was just a few minutes away by car. We stumbled upon two delicatessens situated just opposite each other, laden with local hams and of course capocollo, cheeses, grilled vegetables kept in olive oil, marinated seafood calling: buy me, buy me! Well, we did buy it and lots of it. We indulged in the wine too. The wine obtained from dark- skinned Primitivo grapes. I adore the bottles too, dark, rather big and very heavy.

Most of the visits however we made to an another nearby sweet and cute “white town” Locorotondo. It is where the Dègustateur had the best stinco (pork shank) ever. Myself on the other hand, being a big fan of a very “poor men food” plate of dry broad been puree and blanched seasonal greens drizzled with best olive oil, I couldn’t have asked for much more.
The orecchiette are the most famous pasta of Puglia. They look like small disks resembling a small ear hence the name. Orecchiette con cime di rapa (with broccoli rabe) are perhaps most known outside Puglia but since it wasn’t the season to try the dish, I had orecchiette con bracciole. In other words the small ears pasta with meat rolls cooked in tomato sauce. I liked it so much that I recreated it at home and shared the recipe on the blog immediately.

We really had a lovely time. The food from the land was alternated with going to the coast (not a touristy spot even though the very famous Borgo Egnazia was just next door) and having almost everything that the fishing boat offered on the day. We treated ourselves to sea urchin, raw langoustines and red prawns. Those delicacies were so sweet and heavenly good. From a very generous selection of mixed warm starters we particularly liked black rice with burrata cheese and baked local mussels au gratin.

It was quite tricky for me to open raw mussels by hand. There is a special technique to do that, the technique that I have by no means a full command of yet. But my temptation for making tiella barese was stronger than my skills. As a consequence with the help of my stubbornness and after a few scratches on my hands I managed to prepare the mussels as required and save their water which is released once you open the shells. The rest was easy. Tiella barese consists of layers of thinly sliced potatoes, sliced onion, roughly chopped tomatoes, rice and opened mussels but still kept in one half of the shells. Each layer is finished with grated pecorino cheese and it is then baked in a casserole dish for about an hour. It was delicious. So lovely that I may forgo my scratched and slightly painful fingers and make it again. It was surprisingly delightful.

Sooner or later all holidays come to an end and it is time to go back. Home is always home, my space and air. In Rome everything gradually comes back to life from the end of August onwards.

I love being back in my kitchen and pottering around it. I always bring so many ideas (that I don’t always put in writing unfortunately) with me on food and on what to cook but we were both craving for some traditional Roman food. The food of just a few ingredients and of strong flavours. That is perhaps one of the most accurate descriptions of la cucina romana.
I immediately made beef straccetti, thinly sliced beef pieces that are the make up of an outstanding dish.

I never use bread crumbs nor flower for cooking them (as I have seen in the past). My version is simple and packed with flavours, that is why I don’t sear the meat and serve almost immediately after having tossed the thin pieces in a hot pan. I like to gently cook them in white wine, some marjoram, generous amounts of seasoning and very often to finish with balsamic vinegar. You see, to me the flavours are of crucial importance and the meat can only absorb them if you allow enough time for it. This dish is extremely simple and quick, no more than 30 min in a pan and it is ready. We have just had a good friend visiting us and he really likes straccetti. So I prepared it as above and served it on the bed of rocket leaves and garnished with shaved parmesan. We loved it.

Having a guest over gave me a perfect opportunity to cook some Roman classics that we were looking forward to having: pasta alla carbonara and l’amatriciana. Just a few ingredients, guanciale being the key one. We all of course went to our favourite restaurants, a must try was coda alla vaccinara, lamb chops, tonnarelli cacio e peppe. Then there were stops at favourite enotecas or wine bars for some Prosecco or Franciacortata to start the evening with. Ice cream tours we reserved for after dinner for two reasons: I find them to be a wonderful end to the dinner and the queues are much smaller.

My friend Robert and I did a lot of walking. He really appreciates the city, the food culture, the weather and most importantly the history. During one of the walks we looked at Forum Romanum from the Capitol Hill. The late afternoon light was warm with orange hues giving a sweet and soft contrast to the shadows. We stayed there for a moment, admiring the heart of the Roman Empire in silence. And that was one of those moments when I say, it is good to be home.


When it’s almost too hot to cook

July 27, 2019

I have learnt to embrace the weather for whatever it is in all its extremes: hot, cold, rainy and atmospheric. If there is a right outfit for every weather type then there must be suitable food for every weather condition.

Summer in Rome this year has been extremely hot and humid, some would call it unbearable.
The pavements along narrow and long streets are kept busy only on one side, the one that provides the shelter in the form of shade.

I have always been grateful for my air conditioning unit my the kitchen. I could manage in the past without putting it on while having my morning coffee and watching the news. But that has suddenly changed, that sweet quiet moment of a few minutes for my self needs some assistance, cold air.

I know that it is temporary and we will be remembering and talking about this summer in the next few months to come. We will be missing having an iced coffee or crema di caffe in our favourite coffee bars. I like to make an iced coffee at home too. I use moka to make my coffee, I wait until it cools down, stir in some sugar and keep it in the fridge until I fancy sipping it poured over some ice. It is a drink absolutely to die for especially now during the unbearable heat, that you eventually get used to and learn to love with time. With my morning coffee I tend to have a rather small breakfast, not because we live in Italy now but I have almost always had it that way. I enjoy a bigger meal later on in a day. The locals would just have a cornetto alla crema, al cioccolato or just vuoto, or a Roman speciality maritozzo (a small bun, cut lengthways and filled with whipped cream) and a coffee. When you ask for a coffee in Italy, you will be automatically presented with an espresso.

Depending on the day and how we start it, we either have small breakfast on the way while running some errands or we have it at home. I like to get up early and watch the city wake up, then I tend to bring home still warm cornetti or pizza bianca from a local bakery. This pizza bianca cut in half and filled with figs (just squashed not sliced) was given to me a few years ago by Domenico, my local fruit vendor that I visit almost every day. That is what he had for breakfast. So did I. A Roman treat that you can only have when the figs are at their best, ripe and sweet almost like honey. Since then, during summer, I occasionally go for a stroll to search for some lovely pizza bianca (looks almost like focaccia but the two are not the same) and figs. You have to be quick as they sell out fairly fast. This traditional Roman breakfast sadly can’t be found on the menu anymore. Personally I prefer its most simple variation, just bread (pizza bianca) and figs (and a coffee of course) but you can have it with prosciutto crudo (cured ham) for a greater complexity of the flavours and an extra ingredient.

During this period I set ou for my grocery shopping earlier than usual while hoping to be able to walk in still fairly moderate temperatures. There are days however, that prove to be an exception to that rule. Your appetite changes and when I ask myself a question what to make I start digging out my old time favourite recipes for cold food and for those most suitable for the current weather.

I would always make a cold soup, a Spanish classic gazpacho or cold beetroot soup blended with some feta cheese, served with Granny Smith apple as a garnish. We particularly enjoy a lesser known Spanish cold almond soup, chilled in the fridge with some sweet white grapes. Panzanella is not only a fantastic way of using stale bread but also a lovely salad that you can make in advance, chill it in the fridge and serve it when you are ready. We had already fallen in love with the fresh and flavoursome goat’s cheese, peach and orange blossom water salad while we lived in London. All the ingredients can be easily found here and once the peach season starts I prepare it very often.

When I make a large batch of fresh basil pesto (it can be safely stored in a fridge) I like to use it not only with pasta but to dab it on a potato and green bean salad. Recently I used the left over pesto as part of a dressing for a boiled octopus, potato, tomato and celery platter.

There is a bit of cooking involved with the gnocchi, although once you have learned how to make them it doesn’t seem that complicated or time consuming at all. My summer proposition is to have them with gently fried courgettes, basil and crème fraîche. What a dreamy combination.

A whole fish like sea bass or bream baked in salt often graces our table. I want a minimum of work involved so I also bake a whole turbot or any other fish with some white wine, fresh herbs and lovely sweet tomatoes. Just a few ingredients but you will end up with such a rewarding dish. The only thing left to do is to neatly separate the tender flesh and present it beautifully on a plate.

Chicken or veal escalopes with lemon and parsley are always present during summer. They take almost no time to make, and if you crave for a crunchy finish, just dust them moments before frying with flour, roll in a beaten egg and then bread crumbs and let them golden in an awaiting hot pan and foaming butter.

I have mentioned on numerous occasions how much I like to make food that I can prepare in advance and just heat it up when I need it. A meat ragù is one of these. All I need for my meal is to boil some egg pasta, toss it with the meat sauce and scatter some grated cheese on top. To make my summer ragú I change the herb selection. I am particularly careful with sage (to me it is more suitable during colder months with a darker and richer ragù). I use some fresh rosemary, oregano and some basil towards the end of cooking.

There is nothing more refreshing on a hot day than a bowl of cold fruit. I make la macedonia very frequently and my selection of fruit will depend on what is available in the market.

La macedonia is a very lovely way of using fresh ingredients. The fruit of your choice (cut into bite size pieces) is drenched in a mixture of water, lemon or orange juice with a small amount of sugar and kept in the fridge. It stays fresh for 2-3 days and is meant to be served cold.

A citrus panna cotta is one of our latest favourites. I have been inspired with the flavours of Sicily, the use of citrus fruit for cooking in particular and I have brought certain ideas into my kitchen.

Of course we can’t miss out on an ice cream. We are spoiled for choice in Rome but this particular white chocolate and saffron ice cream I make at home (without an ice cream maker).

So here they are, some of my recipes to try when it’s almost too hot to cook, I hope you enjoy them.


My home is where my kitchen is & seasonal inspiration

July 1, 2019

Our kitchen is quite small, at least it seems to be that way when compared to the rest of our apartment. It opens with a sliding door to a long and narrow dining room which we have fairly recently redecorated. Not a huge amount of work involved but it had previously felt like an unfinished room. It is still not fully finished, mainly because I haven’t yet found what I may like or what catches my eye. We have wonderful antique shops down the street, but for the time being I prefer just to admire them from a distance. Apart from giving the room some colours I bought a rather large piece of Carrara marble to serve as a table top. It was not an easy job to get this to the apartment, carried up by three men (the lift is too small) up to the third floor. I really don’t want to think about moving again right now.

The dining room is the only room painted in a colour other than white (and its shades being a result of different wall finishes across the apartment). We rent at the moment and I happily embraced the newly renovated apartment, a big lateral open bright space, so hard to find in Rome’s Historic Centre. In life you learn to compromise and despite the fact that I am not a great fan of modern interiors, I feel happy in our space. The modern interior comes with an air conditioning unit in the kitchen which I love. Summers in Rome are usually long, hot and humid. Cooking is the last thing you want to do but my little kitchen has become my oasis. My home is where my kitchen is. You must have heard this phrase so many times in your life already and you may even think of it as a clichè.

Most of my time evolves around the kitchen. It has always been that way especially when time allows. Over the past few years there have been some changes in our lives, moving to Italy is only one of them. Since then there have been periods where I have had more time to enjoy a lazy potter in the kitchen and dedicate more time to experimenting, recreating the dishes that I have tried eating out or catching up with my cook book collection. This time wasn’t always available in the past. I don’t take it for granted and I hope it will remain that way. A perfect balance that all of a sudden can be spoiled or disrupted, sometimes when least expected. Unfortunately a couple of recent weeks were quite stressful and rather unpleasant for both of us. As for every couple the following is true: we are on this boat together. But problems are to be confronted, dealt with and resolved, preferably sooner rather than later. It is exactly during these difficult moments when you realise what matters the most. What is important for us and where that is.

No sooner had I returned to Rome from a routine London trip (a few days earlier than the Dègustateur who had to stay longer) and was happily back in my “small and modern” kitchen than I realised this is where my heart is at home. Despite arriving late in the evening I took a slow stroll to the grocery store (open till very late in the Historic Centre) enjoying the widely spread perfume of jasmine. I was alive, happy and smiling. I made sure I bought enough eggs and sugar. My plan was to start already on one meringue layer of the pistachio and almond pavlova that I had created in my head whilst still on holiday in Sicily. I just couldn’t wait. The pavlova that I usually make consists of two meringue rings. My oven unfortunately is too small to fit both in at a time, so the second one was made the following day after my morning run (in the nearby Villa Borghese park). The high temperatures and humidity are here. I try to combat them by going to the park even earlier in the morning than I usually do but at the same time it is so lovely to feel that warmth of the sun on your shoulders, the sign of the much delayed summer.

My dear friend Francesca came for a dinner the next day. I was still on my own in Rome and we had a lovely catch up between us girls.

I am a red wine lover but on a hot day bollicine (very chilled as per my personal liking) is just perfect. During summer months I tend to keep a bottle (or two) of Prosecco or another sparkling wine in the fridge. You never know when you might need it.

I suggested we ate in the dining room but Francesca preferred to stay in the kitchen and eat at the island, my work space, laden with plenty and various ingredients. She liked the small chaos in the kitchen that I had created. For her it shows that the kitchen is lived in, perhaps the most in our home.

A bean, tuna and red onion salad is a fantastic starter and takes no time to make. A piece of good white bread to soak up the juices is a must.

After the, mainly gastronomic, recent trip to Sicily I came back inspired. I think it was our best time on the island so far. Wild fennel is ever present in Sicilian cooking and you can be very creative with it. As a result I served us tagliolini with a wild fennel and sausage ragù. I must have already mentioned that I tend to choose something very easy to make when having guests. That way I can focus on the conversation with a little input in the kitchen. The ragù just needs to be heated up and tossed with freshly boiled pasta. So simple and so delicious.

The light as air pistachio and almond pavlova was already in the fridge and waiting patiently. I was contemplating the idea of combining the almond and pistachio flavours with pavlova while still in Sicily.

I adore pistachio cream made of pistachio from Bronte, the region of Sicily considered to be producing the best pistachios in Italy. The almonds from Val di Noto are also something to die for.

I folded the pistachio cream into freshly made Chantilly cream, giving it a lighter texture, a light green hue and a more delicate taste. A similar thing with almonds. I chose to toast them first, that way they release their essential oils, then blend them with a small amount of sugar until obtaining almost the consistency of a paste. I generously decorated our dessert with fresh strawberries and we devoured it without saying a word.

I had prepared enough of the ragù so that the Dègustateur could try it upon his return. He loves the Italian sausages. They consist of a 100% meat and they differ in taste depending on the butcher you buy them from. Every sausage maker will have his lovely way of adding some fresh garlic (but not too much) or spices like pepper, coriander, chilli or fennel.

Very often our lunch is a kind of “snacky” lunch where I buy sliced cured ham, some cheese, seasonal vegetables and some bread for the salad juices which we almost always have. You could pack it all up and have a dreamy picnic outdoors, perhaps under one of the trees to escape the strong sun in Villa Borghese. We live next to it hence it seems to be an obvious choice apart from the fact that we really love this park. I in particular make a use of it a lot. An early morning jog every now and then is so peaceful, the tourists normally haven’t reached this destination yet. I tend to stop and admire (frequently on my own) the view over Piazza del Popolo and the St. Peter’s Basilica in the background.

A few days ago I saw large, plump and meaty tomatoes being sold in the fruit and vegetable market. I knew immediately what I would be making for lunch. But plenty of other tomatoes of different shape, size, colour and flavour gave me a new idea. There are days when I ask myself in the morning: what shall I make today? The ideas don’t always come immediately but then I rely on the market and what is in season for the inspiration. It never fails.

I picked up a sheet of puff pastry from a local supermarket on my way home. On the same day I improvised and made a fresh tomato tart on a bed of Feta cheese and crunchy baked french pastry generously decorated with fresh herbs: basil, coriander and oregano. Use the herbs that are available (always fresh) and that take your fancy. I love to mix coriander and mint but somehow on that particular day mint was hard to get.

The pomodori al riso (baked tomatoes with a rice filling) a staple Roman summer dish we devoured the following day.

When in Rome…


Missing the Southern Italian flavours

May 19, 2019

During one of my very frequent trips to the fruit and vegetable market (I have my favourite stand at the Campo de’ Fiori market but I also frequent a market nearer to home, smaller but by no means less buzzy to be served my favourite vendor) with the shopping list in my hand (which helps me not to get carried away with the shopping) all of the sudden I saw those glorious, purple, firm and shiny aubergines of different shapes, size and colour. And I gravitated to them. I couldn’t resist. The shopping list helped me to remember to pick up everything that I wanted for the weekend and while I was still going through some ideas in my head I was already asking for a few aubergines to add to my basket. While walking home I was trying to figure out what use to make of them? To have them as a contorno or a part of antipasto? Just grilled and served with a good drizzle of olive oil, some sliced garlic and chopped parsley for extra flavour, all covered with a squeeze of fresh lemon? Amalfi lemon preferably, the lemon from the Amalfi Coast in the region of Campania of which aroma, colour, sweet taste and plump shape is just intoxicating.

In a couple of weeks time we are heading to Sicily for a holiday. We are really looking forward to this trip, as every year. We are going back to the same region of Sicilian Baroque in the south east of the island. I know, we have quite a few places that make a part of our yearly pilgrimages. Perhaps one would ask, why yet another return to the same region if you could see another one? Well, we like on some occasions to take our time to see a new place and slow down and if we are particularly taken by it, we will come back. Holidays are to be enjoyed and you can do that only when you are relaxed and most likely working out the “plan for the day” at breakfast or while soaking up the sun. And that is exactly the sun that makes you slow down. Why not to fallow its rhythm? Having said that, of course we have marked places to see and things we would like to do but more importantly what and where to eat in Sicily. No calorie counting here, but we never do anyway. That rule applies also to wine.

With me it is somehow the aubergine that has evoked the memories and longing for Sicily. I decided to make caponata, a sweet and sour aubergine dish, a typical example of Sicilian cuisine. I love this heavenly medley of the ‘agro dolce’ sauce based on wine vinegar and sugar with deep fried aubergine pieces. And that is only to begin with. For caponata we need some celery stalks, sliced and then fried. You would add some good quality pitted olives and capers. Next in go the raisins (sultanas) and toasted pine nuts or almonds. All finished with a few slices of onion (I choose the red onion here) and a couple of tablespoons of plain tomato sauce (passata or tomato paste also work well). The aubergines play the main role but all together with the other ingredients the dish is elevated onto another level. The range and fantasy of Sicilian aubergine recipes is vast, quite overwhelming in fact. Probably caponata is the most elaborate version of this.

Personally I choose to grate a bit of bitter dark chocolate on top of the finished dish. This very baroque touch of chocolate fully completes it for me.

One of the fruits I always buy are lemons. Proudly staring at me in heaped quantities daily decorating every fruit and vegetable stand. I just love the look of them. On top of that, I use them almost every day. If I buy too many of them I display them on our dining table. You can decorate your table in so many ways. I tend to arrange what I’ve bought in a market on different plates in large quantities: apples, lemons, aubergines, tomatoes and so forth.

And it was exactly whilst I was looking at those glorious, sweet and plump lemons from the Amalfi Coast (Campania) lying on the dining table, I started to ponder over torta caprese al ciocolato bianco e limone, a variation of the traditional torta caprese. My ears pricked up immediately when Diana (my Italian tutor) and I were discussing the “perfect recipe” for the almond and chocolate cake (torta caprese) and its possible forms. I am always interested to hear about food, other people’s approach to it and preferences. There are so many angles, recipes, variations and there is always something new to taste and discover. Every source of information is of great importance to me, especially when spread by word of mouth. It feels more private that way, like a little secret that now I cant wait to share, exactly like my recipe for the lemon torta caprese. It is a cake that stays moist and fresh for a few days. It is really important to spend some time and buy good, sweet, plump and full of aroma lemons because that is exactly the level of sourness, sweetness or bitterness of their skin and flesh that will determine the end result.

On the Sorrento Peninsula and its coastline its famous sweet, juicy and perfumed lemons are cultivated on terraces that are stepping down towards the sea. From the lemon skin infused alcohol the limoncello is made but most importantly the lemons have become a main ingredient of many local delicacies.

There is a lemon cake that I’ve come across during our travels to Ravello while discovering the breath taking places and admiring the dramatic and surreal coastline. I am sure you’ve seen some pictures or visited this magical and mesmerising part of Italy already. Unfortunately I was not taking any pictures during those trips and I must apologise for the lack of visual content.

Not only the dough of the “dolce al limone” is mixed with lemon juice and its zest but once it is baked it is then drenched in a lemon syrup. The recipe comes from a book that I picked up during my first visit to the Costiera Amalfitana and I love it for its simplicity and precision. We all know that with a simple food with a focus on just a few ingredients and its flavours there is no way to escape. As ever, good ingredients and a bit of love while cooking are my ultimate recipe.

Whilst writing this post the idea of a heavenly creamy and summery risotto al limone came through my head. I made it the following day for lunch, served it on the plates I bought some time ago in Ravello and we devoured it. Recently the weather has been playing little games here in Rome but when the sun is out, you can definitely feel it.

I find lemon risotto perfect for lunch or dinner by an open window allowing the already warm early summer air to come through. Certain dishes just taste better only when the ambient temperature is going up. The lemons coming from different regions and part of the world are available in supermarkets or fruit and vegetable markets the whole year round but I can’t imagine us having risotto al limone for example or perhaps tagliolini al limone during any other period than now and for the next a few months to come.

For a long lunch or dinner in the next a few days I would probably serve a caprese salad to begin with. Such a simple plate of food and yet known all around the world. I truly believe that the success of this particular salad lies in the ingredients. Mature, sweet and dare I say “meaty” tomatoes, mozzarella or fior di latte, good olive oil, a pinch of salt and fresh basil leaves torn by hand. You can also find a variation with dry oregano sprinkled on top. I think it is good to try both versions and alternate in case you enjoy them both equally. There is no real recipe for the caprese salad but try not to cut the tomatoes nor mozzarella too thinly and make sure they are at room temperature when serving. If you find that the fior di latte or mozzarella loses too much whey when slicing, leave the slices in a colander for about 30 minutes before assembling the salad.

Another fabulous antipasto that we love is still a lukewarm seafood platter made of cooked octopus, clams, mussels, prawns or langoustines, grilled squid all finished with a drizzle of lemon juice and a good olive oil, sprinkled with freshly chopped parsley. To my mix of starters, since they are in season, I would also add a raw baby artichoke salad with shaved parmesan. What a treat.

For the primo piatto I would happily make spaghetti with clams or tagliolini al limone. Having said that, we liked the risotto al limone so much that I might be making it sooner than expected.

Perhaps as for the main course I would opt for the lemon and chicken Sicilian meatballs served with aubergines in tomato sauce, oregano and basil. Both dishes can be prepared in advance which will only improve their flavours and at the same time they are very comfortable and easy to serve while having guests.

For the dolce I am still in two minds but I can feel now that lemons will play the main part.


Spinach & ricotta ravioli and two sauces

April 9, 2019

During the brief period of the early days of Spring la vignarola very often graces our table.
It is a staple side dish in Rome, a wonderful concoction of artichokes, young broad beans, sweet peas and asparagus.

It should be gently stewed starting with the ingredients that take longer to soften and adding a small amount of water only if needed.The dish is so flavoursome that you could add just a little bit more water and turn it into a lovely seasonal soup (minestrone) if you wish.
I first came across this dish when we moved to Rome. I had it in a form of a soup rather than a side dish (contorno) in a very old fashioned and lovely Roman trattoria. Since then I’ve been anxiously awaiting the early Spring season every year to take advantage of all the goodness that it brings.

I can’t remember every single detail and I believe that we experience food and culture in a different way while growing older. What we leave behind is a beautiful collection of unconsciously selected memories that we linger upon and don’t want to let go.

I can still remember when I had the spinach and ricotta ravioli served with tomato sauce for the first time, it was many years ago, for a comfort lunch. They may not have been the perfect ravioli of fresh home made pasta dough but what is most important was their taste and the memory of them has remained.

Since our arrival in Italy I’ve found them in Rome in a very popular and busy amongst locals (but not only) enoteca serving mainly local specialities. You can’t book a table and more than once we’ve waited outside enjoying a glass of bubbles waiting to be seated. But it is worth it every time. It is nothing fancy, just good hearty food with an excellent wine selection and choice, just off Piazza Navona. And since that moment I’ve had a growing desire to make them at home. I love a very well prepared comfort food that is not complicated except for its quality, exactness and clarity of flavours. So a few weeks ago for no particular reason I decided to make the ravioli in question at home. Moreover, it has been a while since I made fresh pasta. There is a great choice of very high quality dry pasta ready to buy so I don’t feel a real need to compete with the best makers out there. When it comes to pasta dough parcels of different shapes and fillings I raise my hand to it. I don’t own a pasta machine, I still use a wooden rolling pin to roll out the pasta, at least for now. It makes me happy to see a big thin yellow pasta dough sheet spread on the work surface ready to be transformed in something delicious.

A new lesson for me was to learn that the spinach and ricotta ravioli can be served with two different sauces, butter and sage or tomato. I wouldn’t be able to tell right now which one I prefer more.

The same ravioli, two different sauces, two different dishes. Gently foaming butter and lightly fried sage releasing its aroma or slowly simmered tomato sauce with a hint of garlic and a sweet scent of fresh basil. I guess it’s best to make them both ways at first and then discover which one suits your personal taste more.

Having grown up in Poland I was brought up with pierogi, similar parcels to ravioli with a varying filling depending on the region or family tradition. The dough is slightly different but the principals are the same, always trying to make the pierogi as flavoursome, soft and fresh as possible. My favourite time to have them is Christmas, a special family time with food made to be shared with love.

Spinach and ricotta is a very easy, lovely, delicate and tasty combination seasoned with some freshly grated nutmeg and mixed all together with grated parmesan and an egg to bind. Bieta (chard) is a wonderful addition or even a substitute for the spinach.

Easter is approaching rather fast, somehow much faster this year. But we are looking forward to it mainly because our friends are coming to stay with us for a few days. It is their first visit to Rome and we can’t wait to take them to our favourite places. We probably will not have too much time for too many meals at home but I am thinking of making a few Easter treats like Torta Pasgualina, an Easter Pie exactly calling for the ricotta and spinach filling (also chard is frequently added) where you make small shallow wells that you break an egg into. All goes into the oven until the pastry gains a lovely golden colour and the eggs are set. This pie originated in Liguria but has made its way also to Lazio where ricotta is a component of almost every pie or tart, sweet or savoury. The slices look so appealing if I manage to cut them across the eggs so you can see the egg yolk and white sandwiched between the green pie filling and the pastry. I made it for our first Easter in Italy three years ago and it is about time I made it again. If there is anything left just heat it up in the oven for 10-15 minutes at about 160 C and it serves perfectly as a snack.

La frittata with artichokes has also crossed my mind, not because it is a vary traditional plate served for the Easter Breakfast but just to share my love for the artichoke.
La vignarola is a must to try and I will gladly prepare it for the first meal at home. It is a perfect example of the Roman celebration of Spring.

I will be making abbacchio alla romana, a dish that often graces Roman tables for Easter but not only. It is a young lamb cooked with rosemary, sage, white wine and anchovies. It is a local speciality and since I don’t cook lamb very often, I find it a perfect opportunity to vary our menu just a bit and make the Dègustateur happy. I will serve it with garlic and rosemary roast potatoes, simmered white beans with sage and garlic, drizzled with a good olive oil while still warm to lift and elevate the oil fragrance. There will also be a red cabbage salad with apples, raisins and roasted hazelnuts finished with a copious amount of freshly chopped dill.

I was kindly presented with a request by my dear friend for tiramisù. Of course I will happily make it, in fact it is also a staple dessert in Rome despite the fact that it comes from Veneto, and in Italy, as you must know by now, the food is very regional. But then, where else in the world isn’t tiramisù known yet? I will gladly make it for her, however I want my friends to try as well my new apple and walnut oil cake. The Dègustater loves it although he hasn’t tried the latest modifications yet. For him life is full of surprises at times when he comes back from a work trip.

The apples are first soaked in lemon juice and some whisky while I make the dough. Nothing fancy or complicated here. Another layer of flavour running through is the warmth of cardamon, not too much of it, you just want to get a hint of it rather than overpowering the whole cake, which can be easily done.

There is something about baking, the smells and aromas travelling from the kitchen and spreading around the house. They are so welcoming and nostalgic bringing back childhood memories.
To my apple and walnut cake I add some chopped dark and white chocolate towards the end, decorate it with a sliced apple and that is it, ready to bake. The end result is a delicate and succulent fruit (apple) cake that keeps well and stays moist for a couple of days.

To indulge even more I serve it with whipped mascarpone and vanilla seeds, my latest obsession, but the cake is just perfect on its own dusted with some icing sugar.

So that is how we will be spending Easter this year, in wonderful company and good food at home, finally.

Happy Easter & Buona Pasqua


L’ Amatriciana

March 3, 2019

We have just got back from our annual trip to Basilicata. It was our fourth visit to this special place, famous and admired for its cave dwellings, Sassi di Matera. It is quite funny how certain destinations just grab and captivate you completely. Without a great deal of planning ahead you end up coming back to this unique and longed for place year after year. This is exactly what happens to us every time over the winter period. I particularly adore the cold crispy nights and an occasional fog that sets heavily over the stone buildings. Sometimes it so dense that we are happy that we know our way around the Sassi (the stones). The streets are narrow, lit by an accidental lamp and a narrow window light. They are equally spooky and romantic, and the views of the caves are just breath taking. The hotel that we always go back to is a unique project with its main object to provide its guests with as close of an experience of living in a cave as possible. Sure, we are talking about the modern and more comfortable way of living but still respecting and paying a great importance to its heritage. Every single time we really look forward to spending a couple of days in the grotta (cave), we feel cosy and relaxed thanks to the generous amount of candles spreading their light around the whole cave room.

As always on our road trips we brought something to remember Matera by. On this occasion we paid a visit to a very unique (there is a lovely story behind the azienda) and no doubt with a bright future a female wine maker of the Aglianico wine grape. Smaller production and high quality go hand in hand which is something that I truly believe in. We first heard about this particular wine maker over a year ago and are slowly building a small collection at home while eagerly awaiting the release of the latest vintage of which we have already had a preview.

Upon reflection and a closer look at our eating habits, there is a dish that we crave for almost immediately when we return to Rome from any trip. We just unconsciously gravitate to it. We order it in a restaurant or make it at home without a great deal of planning involved. We could compare it to our fondness for Matera but unlike Matera we can access it more frequently. L’ Amatriciana, a pasta dish, common in Rome (originating in Amatrice) and loved by many. First, it stole the Dégustateur’s heart. It took me a bit longer to become infatuated by it, perhaps it was due to the fact that I was not used to or familiar with cooking with guanciale, which is so representative of Roman food and its region. Nowadays when I think of Lazio I immediately have guanciale in my mind.

Of course, you can always play with the original recipe (which in Italy already would have a few variations) and use other ingredients if the ones that the recipe is calling for are hard to find. The name derives from the word guancia (a cheek) and it is a piece carved out between the pig’s jowl and cheek, and then cured. It is fattier than pancetta but there is no real need to use plenty of it. Its main objective is to enhance the dish with its flavour, but on the other hand, who doesn’t like the crunch of it too?

At the beginning when we moved to Rome, the Dégustateur would order l’ Amatriciana on every possible occasion. I was actually getting slightly annoyed by it as there is so much choice available. But then, you can’t take an English man away from anything bacon like. And I must admit, thanks to that I managed to try this dish in so many places and be able to spot subtle differences. The original recipe is strictly followed, however, as always there already exist little variations to it. Some would swear that onion should be on the (fairly short) list of ingredients, others have been strongly criticised for adding it.

So, what makes the l’ Amatriciana so special for us? To start with it is the fact that the Dègustateur really loves it and I am always happy to make it for him. I am patient with preparing the sauce. You see, a large number of different sauces can be put together during the time allowed for cooking the pasta until al dente. On this occasion however, you start with gently frying guanciale lardons until they become golden and slightly crisp. Next step is to soften its taste with some white wine (sfumare), you just pour in a small glass of it and wait until it evaporates. And then come the tomatoes, rigorously crushed by hand. One small chilli pepper and a generous portion of pecorino cheese stirred in seconds before serving. L’ Amatriciana takes roughly 30 minutes to make but it is one of those sauces that can be made in advance and stored in the fridge until needed.

My latest obsession has become gnocchi and the story behind it was to find the right recipe. It may seem trivial, but the devil is in the detail. After having eaten gnocchi in a few restaurants in Rome, light as air by the way, I started to question the recipes I have used used in the past. There was absolutely nothing wrong with them but now the end result seemed too floury to me (but still tender). Gosh, one gets spoiled for food in Italy and all those little things are of crucial importance.

I did a little research and the answer to what what makes the difference is the egg, if used at all. Let me explain, it is better not to use an egg (which can make the gnocchi hard) but add the egg yolk (only) to help bind the ingredients. Well, the only way to find out is to make gnocchi both ways. Freshly made and cooked gnocchi, tossed with l” Amatriciana sauce will make a perfect variation from pasta. In fact, gnocchi all’ Amatriciana are very often served in Rome and it is worth trying them.

Slowly we are heading towards Spring, and the brief period of eating raw baby artichokes in a salad with shaved parmesan, agretti that I already had a taste of and the Roman soup la vignarola. Agretti are needle-shaped long green leaves of a very particular and delicate mineral flavour. They are traditionally served with olive oil and lemon juice but they also find their use in a ricotta and guanciale quiche or tart as it is called in Italy.

Having said that, the carnival period and its festivities have not come to an end yet. Every region in Italy has its own sweet specialities made only during that time of year. In Rome they are frappe, castagnole and bignè di San Giuseppe which are my favourites. Anything that comes with the pastry cream is a winner for me. It is nothing else than pastry cream filled small balls of choux pastry which, respecting the tradition, have to be fried and not baked. And bignè di San Giuseppe are exactly what we had to sweeten the end of February.


Commencing New Year while watching the fireworks in Venice

January 21, 2019

We had such a wonderful and enjoyable Christmas at our home in Rome. Christmas actually started a few days earlier for us. A number of things made us appreciate and feel festive as soon as we came back to Rome, left the bags to unpack in the morning knowing that no further work related trips were planned until the first weeks of January of the New Year, 2019.

Rome has been very cold recently which only helped us feel the Christmas atmosphere immediately. The christmas illuminations were so beautiful this year, somehow more special or maybe we were just relaxed, grateful and just happy. The late morning Christmas grocery shopping was filled with joy, exchanging wishes and little gifts with our local food vendors, shops keepers and eateries that have been welcoming us regularly since we arrived in Rome. Our final port of call was “our local” wine bar (not exactly on our door step but it is our favourite) for a quick glass of bollicine. We received a lovely gift, a bottle of Ferrari sparkling wine from the owner to take away, and with bags even heavier we were ready to go back home.

I took care of preparing all the festive meals, you may know by now that I love cooking, and the Dègustateur took control of the wine.

On Christmas Day as per our small tradition we walked to The Roman Forum which is closed on that day. We found a perfect spot to pause and admire its full and unspoiled glory.

And then came the day to take a morning train and set off to Venice. For us every opportunity is good enough to visit this breathtaking city. It was the first time that we have visited Venice during New Year’s Eve. We hardly ever celebrate the end of the year, I find it too commercial and cliched. I’d rather spend the evening having a nice simple meal sipping a good wine in a homely atmosphere. Since Venice feels like home to us by now, why not to watch the fireworks there? So we went.

The train journey is never a hardship, usually I catch up on reading or come up with new ideas what to do, visit or revisit. Mainly the agenda evolves around the food which I’ve grown very fond of.

Once you understand Italian regional food you will never get bored. Quite the opposite. And the food of the lagoon and its produce is no exception to that rule. The weather was just perfect, crispy cold but sunny days with the fog settling on the water in the evenings. So mesmerising and magical, even spooky at times.

As soon as we arrive in Venice we tend to go for cicchetti, small snacks typically served in bàcara which can be either served on a piece of bread or polenta but they could also be small servings of food like a meatball, moscardino, artichoke heart, boiled egg with an anchovy and so forth. All washed down with a glass of lovely prosecco. And that is exactly what we did upon our arrival a couple of weeks ago.

The weather was so beautiful, in fact perfect for a boat trip. It didn’t take us long to decide to make a bit of an experience of a Sunday lunch and we were off to the blissfully quiet Torcello island. A home to only a handful of inhabitants but also home to the iconic by now, Inn and restaurant Locanda Cipriani. Ernest Hemingway having been smitten by the island’s unique charm, settled in the Locanda Cipriani during the fall of 1948 dividing his time between writing and duck hunting. Having read “Autumn in Venice” by Andrea di Robilant talking about Hemingway’s love affair with Venice and the muse he met there called Adriana, I have been longing to visit Torcello island ever since.

We enjoyed every single course we had, baked scallops, langoustines in saor, pancakes with radicchio and veal ragù followed by fegato alla veneziana (calves liver with onions and polenta) and fish and shellfish soup. We discovered yet another great wine from the Veneto of which I managed to buy one bottle in a local wine bar to bring back to Rome.

Cold weather calls for pasta e fagioli, a warming and thick borlotti bean cream with some pancetta and short pasta. I make it at home very often. Not only because it reminds me of Venice but because it is also simple to make and delicious. There is nothing more comforting than sitting by the window in one of the Venetian osteria and watching the world go by while eating a warm plate of pasta e fagioli. The world seems to slow down. I feel warm and calm. Who knows, maybe that is the influence of “La Serenissima” on me?

The almost 25 minute long firework display was extraordinary, one of the most spectacular ones that we have seen. We are asking each other right now: shall we see it again?

A part of the fun is to revisit our already favourite restaurants but also to discover new ones. This trip was extremely successful. I have yet more eateries and new dishes that I will be looking forward to having again to add to the already extensive list.

Having bought two kilos of bigoli pasta (not easily found in Rome) we are ready to go back. On the train I am thinking of a menu for a dinner with friends just a few days away. I’ve been talking so much about bigoli in salsa to them, that they have built up a good appetite for this dish. The sauce is simple, made of onions and anchovies but the key is to allow the onions to sweat and turn into a sweet sauce contrasted by the saltiness of the anchovies. Venice was once the largest spice trade port in Europe and you can find the influences of that period in many dishes. My little touch on the bigoli in salsa is to add a pinch of cinnamon, which in my opinion binds the flavours of the lagoon and its history together.

But then I could still remember that lovely creamy chestnut and langoustine risotto which I had on New Year’s Day. Well, the train journey was long enough to allow me to decide.

In Rome we have artichokes alla Romana, stuffed with mentuccia, parsley and garlic and cooked until tender and drizzled with some lemon juice just before serving. They are more laborious but definitely worth it. In Venice the artichoke hearts are the local treat. They are fried and then cooked with garlic, lots of fresh parsley and white wine. So I made them to start our dinner with.

I had promised my friends the bigoli pasta dish a while ago so I kept the promise and we had them as the following course. The risotto will wait for another dinner, perhaps just two of us and that lovely bottle of red wine that we brought with us? I think yes.

In Rome I began to make “my Italian meatballs” with grated lemon zest and parmesan cheese. I also like to add minced veal to the meat mixture. They are very delicate yet distinctive in flavour and I serve them with a plain tomato sauce. They get better overnight hence I decided to prepare them for our last savoury course. That way I can just heat them up and be able to dedicate more time to the guests. There is always a salad, a plain salad made of my latest obsession: radicchietto salad leaves dressed with garlic infused olive oil and a good wine vinegar.

Having just returned from Venice, I couldn’t choose anything else to end the meal but tiramisù (link). Italian desserts are not overly complicated but they require good quality ingredients as well as a perfect balance and flavour combination. There are so many versions of how to make “the perfect” tiramisù in respect of the alcohol being added or the coffee and so forth.

Here is my recipe that creates the sought after by us delicacy of the textures with just a hint of coffee and warmth of alcohol running through (a blend of rum and Marsala wine).


A cenone di Natale (a Christmas feast), 2018

December 21, 2018

December is here, it came so fast, I feel that it almost arrives faster every year.

Perhaps, many more commitments this year, less time to pause and reflect. But then, the Christmas time and its spirit is so magical, that I find it hard to complain that the time passes so quickly, almost unnoticed.

I discuss with the Dégustateur our possible plans for this particular time far in advance, but somehow all those months seem to fly.

The most visible reminder of Natale awaiting just around the corner are Luci di Natale (the Christmas lighting) and the shop window decorations in Rome. Here the preparations towards Christmas start a bit later than what I became used to in the past. London has always done a wonderful lighting display that already starts in November. The shops and department stores go to extremes to catch the attention and quite rightly they deserve to get it. In Poland on the other hand, for my family and myself, it is when you hear on the radio for the first time the “Last Christmas” song by Wham!. From that moment the festive buzz officially commences. Despite the fact that there are so many errands to run and the to do lists prior to the festivities, we all happily embrace this special period and look forward to sitting down together at the table on Christmas Eve.

In Poland Christmas Eve (Wigilia) is a big event, it has a special meaning for us with the aura of the christmas tree and the table set with an extra plate for an unexpected hungry guest.

As children my brother and I were looking out for the first star in the sky. That was the sign that we can sit down to our dinner. We were so impatient that of course we always managed to spot the first star at 4pm, we just couldn’t wait until 7pm which was the official time for the Christmas Eve feast to begin. Another part of the tradition set in stone is to share the opłatek (Christmas wafer) with everybody and exchange best wishes. Now is the time to eat. We will spend Christmas in Rome this year and we will do exactly the same. The opłatek is already waiting and traditions should be maintained.

What I love about Natale is the cosy atmosphere and the time we have at home. I plan what to cook, which I adore, prepare a shopping list which I try to follow. I can get easily distracted by the festive treats: chestnuts, chocolate, seafood, first tarocco (blood orange) of the season and all the flavour combinations perfectly suitable for Christmas.

Artichokes are a big thing in Rome. You can have them alla romana, alla gudia, alla brace, marinated and so forth.

On this occasion I am thinking of having them cooked in olive oil, white wine and water, just following Elizabeth David’s recipe (carciofi alla veneziana). We will feast on creamy burrata with anchovies and octopus. Many years ago (about 16) I spent a year in Spain, in Galicia, the region known for the best seafood in the country. There I tried for the first time pulpo a la gallega, a tender sliced octopus served with olive oil and generously sprinkled with piminetón. There will be deep purple coloured radicchio with aged balsamic vinegar, it always calls me when I am at the food market “take me home” and mostly I can’t resist. We will have a pasta dish with seafood. Last year I prepared spaghetti with prawns and artichokes. I actually created this dish on the spur of the moment.

I am very lucky and I don’t take for granted the fact that the Dégustateur genuinely appreciates and gives me full liberty to cook what I wish to make, not only for Christmas. This year we will have spaghettini with langoustines, fresh tomato and rocket salad. A new inspiration from our frequent visits to magical Venice. Surely we will find space for a grilled turbot or sea bass baked in salt.

I do respect that for the Dègustateur, being British, the Christmas Day lunch is of a greater importance to celebrate. In the morning panettone is a must to start the day. Probably still in pyjamas. Because why not. After that we usually go for a walk around Rome, the city is much quieter with smaller numbers of tourists, we can really enjoy its beauty and history, but we also prepare our stomachs for a late Christmas Day lunch. I will be roasting a guinea fowl stuffed with chestnuts and black truffles (I order the bird a few days in advance with my butcher to skip the pre-Christmas chaos). I’ve just started reading a memoir about an American food journalist leaving her life behind and moving to Venice. After the first twenty pages I stumbled upon a recipe for pasta with walnut sauce. I am so glad that I’ve come across it because I’ve been meaning to make a similar one for a while. Moreover, it appears to match perfectly the festive atmosphere, perhaps because it calls for Vin Santo or Moscato as its substitute. Tagliatelle pasta con salsa di noci will make a delicious starter for the roasted guinea fowl.

Christmas calls for “my chestnut pavlova”, a cake that I created for a charity event in Rome a few years ago. Meringues are crunchy and golden from the outside but soft on the inside. There is a chestnut cream in the middle and the top layer of the pavlova consists of a generous spread of Chantilly cream decorated with marron glacés and grated dark chocolate. There might be torta caprese (flourless chocolate and almond tart) and baicoli with Marsala zabaione (a Venetian treat) on the list. Italian desserts are not very elaborate, they are simple and delicious especially when made with love and care.

There is always wine, red wine and a glass of bollicine to start with. Usually we have a bottle of a more important wine or one that is somehow more special to us.
I open it a couple of hours in advance to let it breathe for a while and to offer us its full potential.

This is our way and the recipe for a comforting Christmas time, a tradition that we wouldn’t change.

Nothing really needs a lot of time to be spent on the preparation, the cakes or tarts (apart from zabaione) can be made a day in advance, so you just decorate them moments before serving.

Buon appetito & Buon Natale


My three favourite risotto of Northern Italy

December 5, 2018

 

Risotto is a completely Italian affair that cannot be compared to anything else.

There are very few other ways the Italians eat rice other than in risotto. What makes a risotto is the whole process of cooking it with devotion, care and love. I absolutely adore making this dish which I find therapeutic and relaxing.  

There has been a lot of misconceptions about cooking a risotto but once you understand a couple of very important steps, every kind of risotto will seam easy. The mystery is perhaps how to achieve the al dente rice (the rice should still have some crunch to it) along with its starchy creaminess at the same time. The grains of a beautiful and creamy risotto should look like pearls and that is why the choice of the rice is very important. My most frequent choice is carnaroli rice with its thin long grains that become almost translucent while holding their shape very well, but most importantly it gives the risotto that sought after creaminess. Apart from carnaroli rice there are also arborio and vialone nano grains . They are perfect for a risotto but those grains have a higher starch content that makes the risotto more dense. Risotto might have been seen as a warming dish of the northern provinces of Italy (where the rice crops are cultivated) but there is a lot more to it. The finesse and elegance of a simple risotto are the most representative words that I can think of.

Another crucial ingredient for a risotto is the stock that will determine the taste of the dish. I highly encourage you to make your own stock (you can make a couple of batches at once and store them).

It is said that one of the most important stages of making risotto is “mantecatura”, which means vigorously beating in the butter and cheese right at the end of cooking and allowing it to rest for a couple of minutes to give the risotto its wonderful creaminess.

Perhaps you may need to make the risotto a few times to get the feel of how the individual stages build the dish and make it come together with the mantecatura towards the very end.

Of course, as always with Italian cooking, the recipes will vary from city to city, village to village, home to home but the steps remain the same.

First you will start with gently frying the onions in butter (sometimes also garlic and other ingredients for example mushrooms or a sausage depending on the risotto you wish to make). Northern Italy is a land rich in dairy produce so of course butter is used.

Next you add the rice to toast it. Every grain should be warmed up and coated by the mixture. At this point you usually pour in a glass of wine and let it completely evaporate before you start adding the stock (which should be warm when it is time to use).

Stock should be added slowly, even only a ladleful at a time. Once the stock is almost completely absorbed it is time to add more while stirring almost all the time.

If you are making for example a seafood risotto, you will add the seafood at some point of this stage otherwise wait until the rice is ready, which means al dente. Take the pan from the heat, wait a moment and stir in the cheese and cold cubed butter for the final stage called mantectura.  

My first risotto I have ever made (that I was very happy with) was the saffron risotto also known as risotto alla Milanese (a staple dish of Lombardy and Milan in particular). At that time I didn’t live in Italy and was spending most of my time in London. It was in London where my interest in food took another dimension. An Italian friend of mine recommended a book by Giorgio Locatelli, an Italian chef living and running his Michelin starred restaurant in London. That moment was a turning point for me. He has become one my favourite chefs and authors. His honest and humble approach to the restaurant scene of London and of course to the regional food of his native country is so inspiring. I actually have his book next to me while writing this post. I was particularly taken by one of the episodes of his TV series where he was making the risotto alla Milanese (at that time in the premises of Gualtiero Marchesi’s restaurant in Milan, who is considered to be a founder of modern Italian cuisine, unfortunately he passed away almost a yer ago). So this is my small homage to both chefs and the risotto that the Dégustateur and I adore. It is simple, elegant, a pure perfection. This is the essence of Italian cooking.

Very often this irresistible saffron risotto serves as a bed for osso buco (veal shanks braised with vegetables and white wine until they melt in your mouth, a speciality of Lombardy). As much as I enjoy both dishes I choose to make a velvety Italian style potato puree (with grated parmesan and some nutmeg) instead and devour the risotto alla Milanese just on its own.

 

Another risotto of Northern Italy that we particularly like is risotto with Barolo wine and Castelmagno cheese. These are the flavours representative of Piedmont. I started making it once I moved to Italy and I believe it is still fairly unknown beyond Italy, which is a shame. We particularly enjoy the risotto al Barolo during the autumn and winter months with a glass of red wine (from Piedmont of course, most likely Barolo or other Nebbiolo grape wines). Despite the fact that I can buy Castelmagno cheese (dense and crumbly cheese from the province of Cuneo that is milder when young but develops some spice when it ages along with a blue mold) in Rome I tend to bring it back from our frequent trips to Piedmont, which makes it more special to me.

I am more generous with the red wine proportions to the white one when cooking this risotto. I love the depth of colour it gives to the rice and of course the flavour which depends on the wine of your choice and the stock. As my little twist on the classic I sprinkle the risotto (just after stirring in the butter and the cheese towards the end) with toasted and roughly chopped hazelnuts from the Langhe region (Piedmont). Could it be any more Piedmontese than this?

And of course there is the region of Veneto, the land of radicchio, the colourful chicory known for its distinctive, elegant and slightly bitter taste that of course has found its way into risotto. Radicchio tardivo di Treviso, tall and pointed, is considered the most precious with its elegant shape, deep red colour and a milder flavour. Other varieties of chicory like radicchio di Chioggia (of a round shape and dark red colour) with slightly more bitter notes will be just fine.

The radicchio is added towards the end of cooking risotto so it holds its shape and still has some crunch to it. On most occasions I prepare the risotto with radicchio just with parmesan or Grana Padano cheese and butter to finish it (mantecatura). On one occasion however, while in Venice I had it with an addition of sweet gorgonzola cheese and since then that heavenly creamy and indulgent risotto has made its way into our home.


A few days in France

November 12, 2018

Last week we set off for an impromptu road trip to The Languedoc region of Southern France. Well, let me start from the beginning. A while ago we had planned a weekend in Alba (Piedmont) to attend The International White Truffle Fair. Visiting Piedmont during Autumn has by now become an annual pilgrimage. The atmosphere in the town of Alba is just fascinating, the food markets almost on every street and square possible, wine bars and the permeating smells of porcini mushrooms and freshly shaved white truffle are so evocative.

The decision to add France to the trip was made just a couple of days prior to our setting off and subsequently we left for France from Rome with a stop over in Portofino in Liguria. We had never been to The Languedoc area before and I was really looking forward to the trip. I was also looking forward to tasting the food as well as sampling the wines that are hard to find here in Rome. The Dégustateur booked us in at a very atmospheric and representative château in a hidden village in the vicinity of Narbonne.

We were stunned by the vast acreage of vines with their splendid autumnal colours highlighted by still very strong sunlight. In fact the area gets 300 days of sun per year.

On the first night we ate the dinner prepared by the owners of our chateau. Foie gras braised in red wine and spices to start with, followed by prawns cooked in Pernod accompanied by comforting ratatouille (a vegetable stew commonly made in France). A dessert in Languedoc found on almost every menu is crema catalana due to its vicinity and the influences of Catalan cuisine. I always use a recipe for this dessert originating from our favourite Spanish restaurant in London, Barrafina. Grated zest of lemon and orange plus a cinnamon stick are responsible for the extra zing that made me fall for this creamy custardy creation. I’ve only recently bought myself a blow torch to caramelise the sugar on top to create a crunchy cover that you need to gently break first in order to get to the heavenly creamy centre.

“Central to most lives here is wine and, after wine, food.” The food is divided between mountain food and the food of the coast. Hunting and foraging play an important role in the area creating its own flavours of southern, simpler and more earthy style of cooking, fairly indifferent to the Michelin styled cuisine of Northern France. Although it is said that the French have lost their way as far as cooking is concerned, here you can still find a deep food culture, perfect execution and a wonderful flavour combination. We enjoyed every single meal we had along with the accompanying wine and I came back with my head full of ideas and meals that I have been wanting to make almost forever.

In Rome the fall arrives on a slightly later date…and only when the rain comes and the temperatures drop I start craving for hearty and comforting food with earthy flavours paired with a bottle of medium to full bodied red wine, already enjoyed and sipped while cooking, which makes the whole experience of slow cooked meals and dark afternoons come together.

There was one restaurant run by an elderly couple that made a highlight of our trip. During low season many places are closed and the choice is limited. I am actually grateful for that find, a perfect example of simple and beautifully made food with love. A simply decorated room with a fire place in its centre (used for grilling steaks) was immediately filled with a very welcoming atmosphere and promising smells escaping from the kitchen. The head chef, the wife, with her perfect english was very happy to share her culinary tips instead of guarding them secretly. Thankfully the menu was reduced during low season because we ordered extra dishes just to be able to taste them, but we finished them all.

Every year when I feel that the autumn is here I make beef bourguignon (a dish that probably everybody has heard of) and its season has now arrived. It is a French staple, based on braised pieces of beef (cheaper cuts are used here that require a longer and slow cooking time) in red wine (the wine that is locally available). This traditional and poor man’s food has gained some finesse over the years and the execution involves marinating the meat first and then adding extra ingredients like bacon (I use pancetta), shallots, carrots, mushrooms and lots of fresh herbs to enhance the flavours during cooking.

I like to start the process of marinating the meat in red wine with some roughly chopped celery, carrots, onions, garlic and a bouquet garni a day in advance. This way the flavours have enough time to permeate and work its magic. I have made many attempts trying to perfect this dish to our liking. The choice of the beef cut for stewing is your choice and if you are not sure about it your butcher should be able to advise (but be aware that the sauce shouldn’t have too much of melted fat therefore choose a piece for stewing that is still fairly lean with some marbling), ask how long it will take for the meat to turn tender and cut off any excess fat before proceeding with the dish. In Italy the way the butchers cut the meat varies from North to South and when I am at my butcher’s I say first what I wish to make (after exchanging a couple of jokes) and according to that a part of the animal will be selected and cut in front of me.

Last weekend I spent pottering in the kitchen. The weather was just perfect, it rained and rained almost all the time. What more could I have asked for. On Saturday (non rainy at that moment and sunny actually) morning the Dégustateur strolled with me (stopping for a coffee at one of the best coffee bars in Rome, in my humble opinion) to the Campo de’ Fiori market where we bought all the missing ingredients for our French inspired cook off weekend. For the side dish for my “beef bourguignon” I made potato purée and another French classic ratatouille, slowly cooked vegetables (onions, courgettes, peppers and aubergine with a few sprigs of fresh thyme) but still retaining some crunch to it. We are spoiled with Italian wines however on this occasion I paired the meal with the wine we brought back from the trip to The Languedoc. In fact, I love matching food and wines from the same region.

There is something atmospheric about the cold weather and watching the rain. In Rome it is a big change this year weather-wise. You just feel like nesting at home and being surrounded by homemade comfort food. I feel like baking a lot more and crave for custardy puddings and desserts. Far breton cake from Brittany is one of those that I have been meaning to make almost forever. You can have it as a pudding or for breakfast gently heated up in the oven. You have to have it warm. It is similar to a clafoutis (click for a recipe here) but it is slightly denser and more custardy. I love the extra kick of cooked prunes in cognac (armagnac or brandy), a process that also makes them softer. Once I tried to use rum instead of cognac but personally I didn’t feel that it created the desired effect.

The best way to find out if my desserts are a success is to hear the Dégustateur say: I could eat them all day long. In fact, there was just one slice of far breton deliberately left for Monday’s breakfast.


August escape (Lago d’Orta, Piedmont)

October 7, 2018

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Italy is one of those countries where a vast number of local shops and businesses close in August for a minimum of two weeks on average and everybody departs for a long and well deserved holiday. For us and many locals Rome becomes a very enjoyable city during this month, much quieter and very little traffic on the roads. There is a period of time however, when we choose to leave the city as well.

We love road trips and there are certain dates to be aware of to avoid the holiday chaos on the roads.

Bearing that in mind and foregoing the obvious most popular holiday destinations in Italy we planned our August escape a long time in advance this year.

Our final destination was Piedmont but we took our time to arrive there by stopping at the Tuscan coast for a couple of days first. It was a very easy drive especially as we know the route so well. We have our favourite places to stop at any time of the year. So we recharged our batteries by having a blissful time in the sun, eating gorgeous and delicate sea food accompanied to start with by a glass of very chilled (to my preference) Franciacorta sparkling wine and the sound of gentle sea waves (yes Tuscany is not all about wild boar stews, T-bone steaks, pasta and beans which are all delicious by the way).

So we were ready to cover the next leg of our journey. The route as usual took us via Liguria and the city of Genoa to our destination, the Roero region. The picturesque drive through Genoa is tricky at times due to increased local traffic, tunnels and bridges. Sadly on the second day of our Piedmontese trip we learned about the collapse of the Morandi bridge that we had just crossed (two days before).

 

We decided to stay at the same agriturismo next to Canale that we discovered on our first ever trip to Piedmont. The food was as wonderful as I remembered. Having been to Langhe, Roero and Monferrato, the most famous wine regions of North-Western Italy, several times (mostly in autumn and spring) by now we really enjoy returning to our favourite restaurants but we always leave room to explore new places. It is hard not to eat well here. One of the most exciting finds on this particular trip was a family run restaurant. Owned and staffed by a couple and one helper. We almost missed it while recovering after driving through the windy roads near Monforte d’Alba. I think there were only eight tables in the courtyard that was the garden of the house bordered by a small chapel on the other end. The village was so quiet when we arrived but we didn’t wait long for the place (clearly well known) to be completely fill up. The highlight of the meal was ”finanziera’ that the Dégustateur ordered. It is a poor man’s stew using the offal, less noble parts of the animal that were left for the peasants, elevated to an elegant dish and served in “agrodolce” sauce. We concluded the dinner with a panna cotta, the most delicious I have ever tasted. I still remember its light creamy texture and flavour. On my next trip to Piedmont I think I will be ordering panna cotta on every possible occasion, it was so good.

Our next stop and much anticipated was Lago d’Orta in the province of Novara. This small lake of just a few square kilometres with a small island in the centre San Giulio is such a wonderful and elegant place, fairly undiscovered yet by mass tourism as opposed to its more famous neighbours (Lake Maggiore, Lugano and Como). It has always been a lake popular with writers. Visiting or preferably staying in Orta San Giulio, a lovely and sweet village, referred to by some as a little gem, it is a must. It stretches along the shores with plenty of space to sit and admire the unspoiled view. Just a few small floating boats that is all you will see on the water. The heart and the meeting place of the “borgo” is Piazza Motta with its weekly market since 1228. The municipal buildings and pallazzi from the late Renaissance surrounding the square are so well kept and add to the atmosphere.

The lake, apart from having been known to writers has become a gourmet destination with Antonino Cannavacciuolo driving this movement. He settled from the Campania region of Southern Italy at the footsteps of the “borgo” in Villa Crespi transforming it into a luxury hotel with its two Michelin starred restaurant. I do watch Italian Master Chef every now and then and having seen his work I have grown very fond of Antonino. Michelin starred restaurants are not high on my priority list but this place I have always wanted to visit. And that is where we stayed on our last leg of the Piedmont trip having an amazing time. We dined at the Villa Crespi and the experience was beyond our expectations. The menu is a journey of classic Piedmontese dishes and the flavours of Campania, the chef’s home land.

There is another Michelin starred restaurant just behind the Motta Square, funnily enough run by one of Antonio’s former trainees.

Among many restaurants there is a great osteria Pan&Vino overlooking the Piazza Motta and we visited it almost every day during our stay either for lunch or dinner. It doesn’t serve any pizza or pasta but it offers a vast range of local produce served in the form of a beautiful and generous platters. Local food means local fish from the lake and at Pan&Vino we tried an outstanding fish platter served either raw or marinated and cooked. I still remember that delicate marinated eel which was an another highlight of the trip. We left some space in our gourmet Lago d’Orta trip for other nearby restaurants, mainly frequented by with the locals where is best to arrive on your small boat.

It is time to talk bout the “agnolotti del plin”, an iconic dish from Piedmont. Agnolotti are small ravioli, small pasta parcels stuffed with a meat (mainly) with vegetables or cheese based filling. They take their name from the dialect word meaning to pinch, to pinch two sheets of pasta together creating small pouches. They would usually be served just with butter and sage leaves or a dark roasted meat sauce. I had them in broth once, just heaven.

To start with here is my version of meatless agnolotti, simply because there are so many delicious meat fillings based on duck, veal, rabbit and so on and I adore them all, which makes the choice slightly confusing. We are still during the end of summer period therefore I found this introduction to these delicate ravioli more appropriate. A concoction of ricotta, spinach, parmesan and nutmeg never fails.

On our last visit to Alba I brought back a couple of ravioli/ agnolotti stamps. These are well made and heavy duty ones but the regular ones you find in a shop will be just fine. The larger size stamp is used for meatless ravioli, either cheese or vegetable. Very rarely, almost never, will you find in Italy a big raviolo with a meat filling. It is just too heavy.

In Piedmont fresh egg pasta has a higher concentration of egg yolks (also in the Emilia Romagna region) hence richer yellow colour of the pasta dough (use always organic eggs). The extreme is “tajarin” pasta, in other words tagliolini or taglierini (see my older post on Piedmont) that gets its profound yellow colour from that abundance of egg yolks. It cooks just in 2 minutes and that is my choice of pasta if I want to make a simple dish with butter and sage or delicious porcini, paired with a glass of Barolo or Barbaresco (“tajarin” belongs to the territory of Langhe).