Bitter seasonal greens, clear blue skies and blood oranges

January 30, 2020


“Yes, I have finally arrived to this Capital of the World! I now see all the dreams of my youth coming to life…Only in Rome is it possible to understand Rome”, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

I believe that the best time to come, see, live and understand Rome is winter. Hardly a day goes by without clear blue skies, strong warm sun that shows its shy face only during early morning hours and once it goes to sleep it leaves you longing to cosy up at home or at a local trattoria.The Eternal City just before and after the Christmas season is lived by the locals. I love this period. Not only because I adore cold crispy winter days but I see Rome in a different clearer light.I breathe more freely.

Markets are bustling as ever but somehow the vendors seem happier, more relaxed and approachable. I also find myself more at ease whilst shopping at them, most likely because for this short period of time they are not a tourist attraction but a genuine point of meeting for a chat, laughter, exchange of latest gossips and grocery shopping of course. Having said that the overwhelming interest in Italian regional food and cooking is very exciting. It is lovely to see that growing number of travellers not only trying but devouring tonnarelli cacio e pepe (my favourite local pasta dish by far), artichokes, that are a big affair in Rome, are enjoyed and cooked both ways: alla Romana, stewed in olive oil and a bit of water flavoured with mentuccia, parsley and garlic as well as briefly speaking deep fried alla Giudia (to be found not only in the Roman Ghetto quarter) where the romaneschi artichokes are to be used which have the ability to open like a flower. Then we have the fifth quarter famous examples of coda alla vaccinara (oxtail) or trippa alla Romana (a tripe). It is finally recognised that it is guanciale and not pancetta that is added to the famous la carbonara with grated Pecorino Romano cheese to follow.

Central to most lives here is food, the passion for it and the simplicity with which Italians cook and eat. A common factor across all the different regions of the Italian Peninsula.
In Rome the working class way of cooking, produce, flavours and traditions are well looked after.

Cicoria, chicory is perhaps the vegetable most loved, cooked and used in the Roman and Lazio kitchen. Its mild bitterness contrasts perfectly with traditional greasy meat dishes. It works extremely well in sandwiches paired with sliced porchetta or mortadella. Above all the most common way of preparing it is to cook it in salted water and then give it a final touch in a pan with olive oil, garlic and very often peperoncino in other words cicoria ripassata. My favourite way is just with a hint of garlic finished with a drizzle of good olive oil as the warmth of the leaves brings out the oil’s beautiful fragrance, finished with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. It is said here that all the bitter greens are so good for you. Well, the more the better!

A comforting lemon scented beef and mortadella meat roll (polpettone) in a dry porcini and tomato sauce accompanied by cicoria ripassata and slowly cooked peppers with black olives and capers makes for a perfect wintery lunch or early supper.

Agretti, a vibrant green spaghetti like vegetable are a real marvel when they arrive to the market stands. They are of a particular earthy flavour, a hybrid between spinach and grass with some tartness to them.At home the non green hard parts only are to be cut off and discarded. Next they only need a good wash, a few minutes of cooking in salted water and served warm with a drizzle of good quality olive oil, some lemon juice and a pinch of flaky salt. Prepared like that they don’t ask for anything more.

Winter heralds the arrival of the Veneto region best export produce and it arrives in abundance to the fruit and vegetable market stalls. Radichietto salad leaves are something I buy extremely often and in large quantities these days. I dress them with a garlic infused olive oil vinaigrette and they are just delicious in their most simple form. But recently, just after Christmas, I tossed in juicy pomegranate seeds, hazelnuts and dry apricots into my radichietto leaf salad which made for a delicious accompaniment to a pumpkin and ricotta terrine garnished with crunchy pancetta. So good.

I am sure (at least I hope) that you have come across the purple gems called radicchio of different hues, shades and shapes. They are all worth trying and vary in the intensity of bitterness, radicchio from Chioggia, Treviso or from Verona. The radicchio from Castelfranco is particularly beautiful with wide green yellow leaves with purple marks running through them with lesser or greater prominance. All manner of radicchio are extremely easy to use in cooking but above all they make for one of the most pleasing simple salads I can think of. Thank you Veneto!

Tarocco, a blood orange has finally arrived. I have been waiting impatiently for so long to make a daily juice or almost daily out of these particular Sicilian oranges. But you see, they are not just any oranges. In Italy they’ve become a symbol for healthy eating. Eating a blood orange is something of an experience. Taroccoo has a meltingly soft dark orange flesh (sanguinello or moro variety is deep rich red in colour), its sweetness is offset by high acidity with flavours unfolding slowly. I’ve been obsessed ever since.
The height of the Sicilian citrus harvest falls in January, February and March. That is yet another reason for me to look forward to winter and the seasonal abundance of produce. Blood oranges are not the easiest to transport. Their skin is delicate and very thin which doesn’t travel or store well. Thy are readily distributed across Italy but perhaps you can still find them in a well stocked organic grocery store.

After a recent visit to Venice, I recreated at home an octopus salad that we had on our last day in a small cosy trattoria which seemed to have many Sicilian influences on the menu.The core of the salad is sliced boiled octopus, thinly sliced celery and the rest of the ingredients are versatile. You can add grated carrots, boiled cubed potatoes, olives and so forth. But the seasoning on the other hand is what makes a difference. I mixed olive oil with freshly squeezed blood orange and dressed my salad with it a few minutes before serving. It was divine and so refreshing.

Last weekend I spent happily pottering in the kitchen unearthing old but tried recipes of mine but I made space in our stomaches for some new ones like lemon panna cotta with a blood orange and Campari syrup.

A magic blend of cultures (Jewish-Roman), of the quinto quarto (the fifth quarter) of Testaccio, produce of the land of Lazio and the food of the shepherds along with many other regional influences making their way to Rome form a wonderful universe that works extremely well here. “All roads lead to Rome” seems so true right now.