Upon our arrival on a late January morning, Rome welcomed us with a wonderful, clear blue sky, strong sun ( something that we were not used to while living in UK or Poland) that was gently warming us up and calling to find a pair of sun glasses tucked somewhere deep in the bottom of our suitcases.
I love winter, and that crisp dry cold, the type of weather that makes you almost wish that it would last for ever.
Slowly lunch time was approaching and we were hungry, hungry for the flavours of Italy that are so varied across its regions. Twenty distinct regions with their own dialects, their unique dietary preferences and local recipes, developed through centuries of historical division and turmoil. The regions may be just few miles apart, but Italians will always insist that cooking from their region is superior to any other.
As we were not tourists anymore, I decided to use the kitchen immediately. It is not very hard here to find a local grocery store offering a wonderful selection of hams (cured or cooked), even greater choice of cheeses , grilled vegetables kept under olive oil (artichokes and aubergines being my favourite) and countless varieties of bread. A bottle of red wine from the local ‘cesanese’ grape and we were happy.
I have grown to actually love travelling across different parts of Italy, tasting different dishes, ways and methods of cooking as well as using seasonal ingredients, not to mention the wine. You can almost feel spoilt for choice.
Over the course of several of weeks I already had on my list a few Roman dishes that I was amazed and inspired by. It has been couple of years now and I still adore them and above all, I do enjoy making them and sharing them with others. So my choice of dishes to start my blog was an easy one. Plus, the fact that we had friends visiting was a perfect excuse and occasion for a feast!
“When in Rome….. do as the Romans do”.
To start the meal I made ”carciofi alla romana”, roman style artichokes.
When artichokes are in season (an artichoke is a vegetable that is not afraid of cold and in Rome I start buying them in autumn, through winter until the beginning of spring) they are on the menu of every restaurant serving local food. Initially I found them bit tricky to prepare. However, since practice makes perfect, peeling and cleaning them seems so easy now. Yes, there is a possibility of taking a short-cut and buying them already prepared at your local fruit and vegetable market. I find it rewarding preparing the artichokes by myself, plus I tend to cook almost the whole of the stalk. They carry so much flavour.
Once the artichokes are ready they are stuffed with chopped fresh herbs and garlic. Traditionally ’mentuccia’ is used, a herb of the mint family that grows throughout central and southern Italy, but of course you can replace it with fresh mint.
We have fallen in love with ‘carciofi alla romana’. Every so often I prepare the artichokes differently, however, we just love this blend of flavours with the slightly dominant fragrance of the artichokes. I can’t resist lifting the lid and smelling them while cooking….
As a mid course, “il primo” in Italian, we had pasta of course. I chose ” tonnarelli cacio e peppe”, tonarelli type pasta with cheese and pepper.
This plate of pasta is lesser known outside Italy, which is a shame, because it is absolutely fantastic and addictive. Its creamy sauce is obtained thanks to a rather generous portion of grated cheese: ‘Pecorino Romano’ (a hard sheep’s cheese). Every household and a restaurant will have they own, unique recipe. Very often ‘Parmesan’ cheese is added along with the ‘pecorino’( which is a quite strong cheese) to soften and balance the taste of the sauce.
After pause between courses and chatting about various ways of preparing the “cacio e pepe” plate of pasta, there was the time for ”coda alla vaccinara” , an oxtail gently cooked (for a couple of hours) with few ingredients: loads of celery stalks (a key ingredient), tomato sauce, a piece of lard and white wine. You know it’s ready when you can easily peel the meat off the bone. It becomes so tender that it almost melts in your mouth. I particularly like this dish because it is a one those that is perfect when you have guests to entertain. Usually I prepare it a day in advance, no rush with the gentle cooking that this cut of meat needs. Apart from that it is a fabulous way of using a rather old fashioned cut and bringing it back to life.
Roman cuisine is based on simple and humble ingredients. Nobody has said it is light. Despite the vicinity to the coast meat dominates the Roman diet.
You can’t call it a feast without a dessert.
We have passed the Jewish Quarter ( Ghetto ) so many times before I finally discovered its biggest treasure, the home of “torta con ricotta e visciole”, a tart with ricotta cheese and sour cherries. This small corner bakery, not calling for too much attention , produces the best ricotta and sour cherries tart in Rome. What a wonderful and delicious example of Jewish – Roman food in the heart of the city.
I have made many attempts and perfected the recipe for this tart and it is a success amongst our Roman friends. Of course I could have bought a ready made tart from the bakery “Boccione” and that would have been a wonderful treat for everybody too. But, since I made every course at home,I chose to serve my version of it. We loved it.