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