I had been in Italy for almost ten weeks, yet it was not until one spring morning, walking back from catching the no. 8 tram after coffee at Roscioli – arms full of the essentials – extra virgin olive oil, salt, black pepper, lemons and a few bottles of acqua frizzante: that I had a glimpse of what it must feel like to be a Roman, if only for a week or two…
It was my first chance to cook for myself – for my last two of 12 weeks in Italy I had rented a small apartment in Trastevere with exactly this in mind. But the kitchen was disappointing – there was a shortage of decent pots and pans, not a single remotely sharp knife, and one of those plastic chopping boards only barely big enough to slice one of my lemons. Then Alice stepped in, ‘why don’t you use the studio* for the day – you’ll have everything you need…’ she said, as she handed me a key, showed me where to find the coffee, and arranged for someone to come and help me with the door. The date was set. Deciding what to cook was easy – quite simply I went to the market and bought what was in season and looked good. In mid-April this meant artichokes, brassicas and strawberries.
It’s interesting what you crave when you’re away from home. In their first couple of weeks of Anna Tasca Lanza’s annual ‘Cook the Farm’, the ten international students boarding at a convent in central Sicily seemed to be eating roast chicken on repeat. I myself was lucky enough to be living and working at one of Sicily's most highly-regarded cooking schools, and despite the fact that when at home we eat Italian on at least five nights of seven – I longed for fish sauce, ginger and betel leaves. By week four when the bus that had taken us to Gangi, high in the Madonie mountains stopped next to a vending machine for fresh milk, there was an audible cheer and we somehow forgot how cold it was as a (very un-Italian) queue was formed, and each of us contemplated whether to buy two litres, or three.
As I write this I have been home almost a month, and that all seems so far away. We are back to eating Italian again, I am back to taking fresh milk for granted, and what I crave more often than anything are the flavours of Sicily and Rome; panelle (a typical Sicilian street food), saltimbocca, gnocchi di patate with pork rib ragu, pasta alla norma, puntarelle (chicory) dressed in anchovies, and cannoli… Our meals, like the one I decided to cook at Alice's studio in Rome (recipes below), resemble those 12 weeks I spent in Italy: first in Rome, then Sicily, and then Rome again – a sort of panino with Rome as the bread, on either side of Sicily as the filling.
Antipasto: Rome - Carciofi alla Giudia (Roman Jewish-Style artichokes)
Artichokes are taken seriously in Rome, and I learnt that buying them whole rather than 'puliti' (cleaned), is a way to gain great respect. 500 carciofi are sold on an average weekday at Massimo's stall in the Campo de' Fiori; and brothers Daniele and Lucio reported selling around 800 one Saturday. Heaving baskets of them line the streets in front of the restaurants for tourists around the Pantheon, and if you hang around at the mercato di Testaccio long enough, locals are bound to pass on their secrets on how best to eat them. I had more than my fair share as I ate my way across Rome – losing count of how many carciofi I consumed over three weeks there this spring. Braised 'alla Romana' with that morning's burrata at Armando al Pantheon (thrice); sott'olio, and with pasta and tiny prawns; but I kept coming back to 'alla Giudia' at Piperno and Da Enzo (below right).
For carciofi alla Giudia, ideally you will use carciofi Romaneschi (Romanesco artichokes) which have 'Protected Geographical Indication' status, meaning they are strictly tied to the area they are produced. Massimo even went so far as to tell me, 'per I carciofi alla giudia tu hai bisogno di quelli di Tarquinia, meglio se da Ladispoli' (for carciofi alla Giudia you need artichokes from Tarquinia, they'll be better than the ones from Ladispoli).
Perhaps you, like me, will smile when I tell you that every Roman buying their carciofi at the market will probably reject at least one or two of those offered to them by the stall-holder, claiming, 'they are too morbido (soft) or vecchio (old)'. But for those not fortunate enough to be in Rome: look for firm, tight buds, ideally harvested a short time ago and without a hairy choke in the middle to contend with. Once you have the preparation out of the way this couldn't be simpler - just a couple of baths in some hot oil and a sprinkling of sea salt.
1-2 large round 'globe' artichokes, or several small tender artichokes, per person
a couple of lemons
olive oil, or a combination of olive oil and sunflower oil, for deep frying
Prepare acidulated water by filling a large bowl with cold water and squeezing in a couple of lemon halves, then work on the artichokes. Begin at the base, removing the tough, outer petals until you reach the more tender ones closer to the centre. Trim the stem leaving 4-5cm and using a small paring knife, peel it back revealing its paler inner part. Holding the artichoke by the base, begin cutting away its top half on an angle so that the centre forms a little curve (see video below). Rub all surfaces with a cut lemon and leave to sit in the bowl of acidulated water while you prepare the remainder.
Fill a medium saucepan with enough oil to completely submerge the artichokes and heat to about 140-150C. Cook the artichokes in batches for about 10-15 minutes, rolling them around the pan occasionally until they are tender when pierced with the tip of a knife.
Remove and drain face down on paper towel and continue until all the artichokes are cooked.
Once they are completely cool, beat each artichoke on a wooden board, opening out the petals as you do. Splash them with ice-cold water and season generously with sea salt before returning them to the oil – this time a little hotter at about 170C. Cook for a further 3-4 minutes, or until they are a deep, golden brown.
Serve immediately with another sprinkling of sea salt, wedges of lemon and a glass of Frascati.
PrimO: Sicily - Busiate con Broccoli Siciliani e salsicce (Pasta with Broccoli and Sausage)
Broccoli (which belongs to the large cabbage family along with cauliflower and Brussels sprouts) as it is called in English, means 'little shoots' in Italian: a clue to the dark green vegetable's origin – though it is not called so in Sicily. There it is known as called sparacelli, and cauliflower (cavolfiore in Italian) is refereed to as broccoli. In Rome, broccoli is called broccoli Siciliani; the light green pointed cauliflower (above left) that here we know as romanesco is known as broccoli romani; and then there is broccoletto romano – not really broccoli at all, but cime di rapa or broccoli raab, which is actually turnip tops.
Any of these brassicas along with a couple of fatty pork sausages makes a wonderful sauce for fresh pasta, but I must confess I have fallen in love with the slight bitterness of broccoli raab. Over the years I have often served broccoli and pancetta with (dried) orecchiette based on a recipe from a River Café book, but with a little extra work (handmade pasta and some of the vegetables whizzed up to make a sort of cream), it has become a new favourite. This is based on a dish that the cook at the school served one lunch, and as such it will always make me think of Case Vecchie.
It's worth bearing in mind that when serving pasta, the cook will often tell his / her guests, 'la pasta non aspetta' – meaning 'the pasta does not wait' – I recommend having your bowls warmed and the table set before you begin!
500g broccoli, broccoli romaneschi, or about 700g cime di rapa
extra virgin olive oil
2 large garlic cloves, bashed with the back of a large knife
2 pork sausages, meat removed and broken into little pieces
sea salt and dried chilli flakes
250-300g fresh handmade busiate, or other short, semolina pasta
Pecorino Romano (or another hard sheep's milk cheese), to serve
Cut broccoli into little florets, peel the stem and cut it into bite-sized pieces. Cook both in a large saucepan of salted boiling water until they are quite soft and will give a bit when pressed with the back of a wooden spoon. Remove using a slotted spoon, reserving the cooking water. Set aside about half the florets, and blitz the other half briefly with a stick blender.
Add a little more salt to the reserved water and cook the pasta until barely al dente - it should only take a couple of minutes.
Meanwhile, heat oil in a large frying pan and quickly fry garlic and sausage meat until crisp and golden brown. Add the broccoli and broccoli cream to the frying pan with the sausage and garlic, season with sea salt and a little dried chilli. As soon as the pasta is cooked add it to the pan with the sauce, tossing it to coat everything well – this is known as to 'finire in padella' (to finish in the pan). Add a little of the cooking water, and a splash of olive oil if you need to loosen the sauce a bit. Remove the garlic and serve with freshly grated cheese and a glass of Malvasia frizzante.
- The sausages should be Italian if at all possible, and a pezzi, not macinate, meaning that they are cut by hand, not ground – little flecks of meat and fat visible through their skins
- If using broccoli raab, look for stems with plenty of flowers, and remove about a third of their leaves which can be quite bitter
DOLCE: ROME - CROSTATa DI FRAGOLe (Strawberry tart)
If there is one thing I can still smell, miles away from the Campo de' Fiori or Trastevere, sitting at my desk in Sydney, Australia, it's the strawberries that were just coming into season when I left Rome in April. Pretty, rounded little Terracina ones, their little petals still attached; and their deep, velvety red, longer, slimmer cousins Basilicata.
One day on my way to meet Alice at the studio she messaged me, 'see you soon. There is coffee and crostata.'. Alice makes magnificent crostate, and I was happy when she made them again with a group of students at 'Market to Table' – a fabulous, generous workshop that she holds there monthly with Rachel Roddy and Carla Tomasi – this time favouring Basilicata over Terracina. It seemed the *only* thing to make for dessert when she handed me the keys a day or two later (I hedged my bets with both strawberries), and this recipe is based on hers, the main change being that I use icing sugar instead of caster sugar in the pastry.
Serves 4 - 6
For the pasta frolla (short crust pastry) -
250g '00' flour
100g icing sugar, plus extra for dusting
125g unsalted butter, cut into cubes, slightly softened
2 organic egg yolks, or one large organic egg, beaten with a fork
zest of half an unwaxed lemon (optional)
For the filling -
110g caster sugar
strips of peel and juice of half an unwaxed lemon
To make the pastry -
Whisk the dry ingredients together in a large bowl. Add cubed butter and rub it into the flour with your fingers until just combined. Add the yolks and a little water if the dough feels too dry, or some extra flour if it is too wet. Turn everything onto a lightly floured bench and being careful not to overwork the dough, bring it together until uniform. Divide the pastry into two pieces (one about 2/3 and the other 1/3), form two flat, round discs and wrap them in plastic, before allowing the pastry to rest in the fridge for at least an hour.
Meanwhile, rinse your strawberries and depending on their size, cut them into halves or quarters. Cook them gently with sugar, lemon juice and strips of peel, until they are soft, but retain a little of their shape. Remove them with a slotted spoon, discard the lemon peel and turn up the heat to cook the liquid for a further 5 or so minutes until very thick and syrupy. Set aside to cool.
Heat oven to 180C and lightly flour a 24cm tart tin with a removable base.
Gently roll the larger disc to a 28cm circle on a well floured surface and line the prepared tin, carefully trimming the excess, and reserving any scraps. Blind bake until golden and crisp (about 15-20 minutes). Allow the pastry shell to cool a little before filling with the cooked strawberries and their syrup. Roll out the remaining pastry and cut into strips to form a lattice over the top of the filling. Bake for a further 20 or so minutes until the lattice is deep golden and cooked. Dust with icing sugar and serve warm or at room temperature, perhaps with a dollop of mascarpone.
- Your strawberries need to be erring on the side of over-ripe - they should be in-season, fragrant and full of flavour
- Crostate are very commonly filled with whatever jam is on hand (we had a beautiful fig one at the school)
- Time permitting, the tart shell is less likely to 'shrink' in the tin if it is allowed another rest in the fridge before blind baking
With special thanks to Sandro Sangiorgi (Porthos) for his literally life-changing wine suggestions; Mirella and Stefano for slowing down just un po' as I filmed them preparing carciofi; and to Alice Adams (latteria studio) for your friendship, advice, and the keys to prop heaven and the prettiest little kitchen in Rome.