Testaccio Market, Wrong Season, Wrong Reason, Right Recipe – Courgettes Sweet and Sour – Caponata di Zucchine

I had a somewhat bizarre experience at Rome’s Testaccio market once.  The old Testaccio market, that is, the one that was razed to the ground a couple of years ago.  An appointment had been made for me to meet a representative of a very reputable company dealing in high-end tours in Rome to discuss, or so I had presumed, the possibility of my being taken into consideration as an Italian culinary coach for them. We shook hands and began chatting most charmingly (about the weather, if you must know), as one days to break the ice.  And then, without any explanatory preamble,  I was invited to join a tour of the market led by Maureen Fant, the deservedly famous Rome-based historian, food writer, teacher and translator for the benefit of a very engaging lady by the name of Marjorie Shaw.  Marjorie and her husband, I found out,  ran http://www.insidersitaly.com – easily at the helm now of my favourite Italy-bound travel planners.

To my dismay, I realised that Maureen (www.maureenbfant.com) was in actual fact in the midst of “working”.  I had expected an informal interview of sorts, not a tour, and for a minute I was just dumbfounded, I didn’t know how to edge my way out of this pickle.  I didn’t want to disturb Maureen, that stood to reason and plain common-sense courtesy but, at the same time, I didn’t want people to think I was indulging in a spot of industrial espionage as it were, since she and I are in the same line of business.  There was no way for me to voice my awkwardness in this situation.  All I could do was nonchalantly tag along, butter not melting in my mouth, as Maureen went her way pointing out, describing, analysing, categorising, critiquing, illuminating and praising.  I was very chuffed to see that her approach was similar to mine with my own clients.  She too, for instance, introduced Marjorie to Carmelo d’Agostino who ran a stall selling tomatoes and tomatoes only, many varieties of … and who liked to style himself as the Poeta dei Pomodori, i.e. the Poet of Tomatoes (his high price, all the tomatoes cost the same, was also subject to witty commentary).  Well, how could one not?  He was a star attraction of the market, as was the seasoned, larger-than-life fish vendor who wasn’t shy about telling people he was the spitting image of a famous Hollywood actor of yore, and even had a black-and-white photo of the actor pinned to his stall.  Neither of the two made it to the new market, but that’s another story.

Towards the end of Maureen’s market tour, the person who had greeted me initially told us she had to go now, and so I didn’t get a chance to find out from her why things had turned out the way they had … but by now I was going with the flow and feeling less uncomfortable and pretending this was all hunky dory ‘normal’.   Marjorie too then left and I ended up giving Maureen a lift home.  And that was that.  We chatted amiably enough and exchanged opinions on food and cooking and I don’t know what she made of me since, bless her, I don’t think she knew why I was part of the tour either.  I never did get to the bottom of the company’s organization of a “non-interview”, and I just chalk up the experience to a “strange day in the life of an Italian home cooking coach”.

The reason I bring this incident up is that at one point Maureen, who is a mine of information anyway, said something very interesting.  And that was …. that, to her mind, the colder seasons in Italy had much more to offer as vegetable varieties went than did those of a summery disposition.   Summer veggies being basically ‘only’ salad, tomatoes, aubergines and courgettes and string beans.  I had never thought about it, and I agreed with her.  Maureen is of course a staunch believer of eating in season.

I thought about Maureen about a month ago when I was at the Testaccio market, doing a bit of shopping this time, and espied some exceedingly out-of-season courgettes (zucchine).  I don’t know whether it was Winter ennui or just plain childish hankering after what’s not allowed … but I suddently developed an unstoppable craving for courgettes. “Maureen would not approve”, I said to myself guiltily as I hesitated before handing over the money to the vendor.  “Always remember what your mother-in-law says!” admonished the inner child in me.  “Lord save us from the Virtuous!”.   Weak as water, I caved in.  I took her advice and very uncharacteristically, for me, bought me some courgettes in March.  Naughty!

Before I proceed with the recipe, I have to come out and say it straight away.  Maureen would have been right.  The courgettes were nothing like they should have tasted,  Bland and almost ‘woody’-hard despite their good looks. On the other hand, I got to try out a recipe that I think will be a big hit this summer.  I got it out of a book by Allan Bay whose name escapes me now, as does the book itself (where on earth did I put it?).  When I find the book, I’ll furnish the title and page number.  Now, however, on with the recipe.  And yes … no cheating … wait until June before you try it out!

IMG_4343 Since I can’t find the book, I’ll have to guesstimate the order of the ingredients.  I see sugar, anchovy fillets, some garlic, pine kernels and raising soaking in water.  The teensy coffee cup contains some red wine vinegar.IMG_4344 Olive oil and some black peppercorns (they are NOT mouse droppings) …IMG_4345 Cut and trim the courgettes …IMG_4346 Chop up the anchovy fillets …IMG_4347 Add some garlic to the oil and turn the heat on … IMG_4351Now add the courgettes, the raisins and the sugar … IMG_4352And last, add the anchovies.IMG_4353The finishing touch are the vinegar and some salt.  Use a wooden spoon to mix well.  Taste.  Taste again.  Add more salt or more vinegar … or even more sugar.  It has to taste nice already.IMG_4354 Cover with a lid and cook over a low heat for about 10-15 minutes. This will depend on the courgettes, of course.  Harder courgettes (wrong time of year) will take longer to cook through.IMG_4355 Meanwhile toast the pine kernels …IMG_4356 When the courgettes are cooked through and tender, add the pine kernels. IMG_4358Allow to cool before serving. IMG_4357In fact, the re-a-lly (really is a three-syllable word and deseves a three-syllable gravitas on occasion), the really clever thing to do is to eat this dish the following day. Aha!  At room temperature.  With some fresh mint or basil leaves.  What do you think? And, remember, ONLY when courgettes (zucchine) are in season.  Don’t be like yours truly.

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Deep Fried Roman Artichokes – Carciofi alla Giudia

Perhaps not everyone knows that many a traditional Roman recipe owes its origin to the Jewish cuisine of Rome, which in turn harks back to techniques and textures that go all the way to southern Italy and Sicily.  I am fascinated by the history of food and by the resourcefulness and intelligence of human beings in developing deliciousness and sustainability at the same time.  The Jewish population endured terrible conditions in Rome for many a generation, contending with all kinds of cruel rules and regulations making life inordinately difficult for them when they were enclosed in the Ghetto, and yet their menus are a delight to eat even today.  Here is a link to some more background if you are interested: http://www.jwi.org/page.aspx?pid=2021#sthash.jPG5NZQY.dpbs.

“Carciofi alla giudia” means “artichokes cooked the Jewish way” and the area of Rome known as the Ghetto is famous for this speciality.  I personally do not know anyone who has cooked these at home amongst my group of friends.  It is definitely the sort of dish one only orders at a restaurant during this time of year.

Sunday evening, i.e. yesterday, however, I looked at three formerly glorious roman-type artichokes that were looking at me as if to say, “Look sweetie, we’re doing our best to keep fresh but there is only so much we can do! if you don’t eat us tonight, don’t expect anything tomorrow.”


They were somewhat flaccid to the touch, their colour was no longer resplendent, and their allure suffered definite signs of the slings and arrows of time.  This said, they were eminently edible I hasten to add.

2 I trimmed them one at a time, and lay them to bathe in a bowl of acidulated water (i.e. water and lemon juice).  For those who are not intimate with artichokes, the reason for this is that an artichoke will turn a very sad shade of grey shortly after it has been trimmed of its outer leaves (i.e. it oxidises). The lemony water prevents this.  Sparkling water will have the same effect.  When you are ready to cook the artichoke, remove it from the water and squeeze it gently to remove any excess liquid.  Pat dry with a paper towel.3 If you go to a restaurant and ask for this dish, the artichoke’s stem will be left nice and long.  I cut mine right back because I couldn’t find the saucepan that was deep enough to accommodate these little blighters.  I poured the oil into the pan above and waited for the oil to reach the temperature before I ventured to gently place the artichoke inside it.  The artichoke needs to fry for about 10-12 minutes, so the oil must not be too hot.4 I added the second artichoke.  I used a set of tongs to turn the artichokes now and then, so that they would cook evenly on all sides.5 I then removed them from the oil and left them to cool off over some kitchen paper.6If you look closely, you may spot a few beads of water.  That is because I sprinkled a little bit of water over the artichokes.  That helps them to crispen up when they are fried a second time.
7 I then gently but firmly pressed the artichoke to flatten it a little …8 And this time the temperature of the oil must be much hotter.  The artichoke is already cooked, all it needs is for its outer leaves to go very crisp (the same idea as with potato chips or French fries).  Fry for less then five minutes.9 Use the tongs to help the artichoke fry all over, turning it this way and that …10I fried the artichokes one at a time.  I ran out of kitchen paper (it was one of those days) and so I resorted to a clean tea towel.    I sprinkled some salt all over …
11 And here is my little trio on the plate …13Home-made carciofi alla giudia.  Not too shabby.

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Borage even in the Bathtub – Borragine Fritta

Borage here, borage there, borage, borage, everywhere!

It’s that time of year … borage shows up at markets with its intensely blue, five-petal flowers, which is why this herb is also known as “starflower”.  Nature can be such a ham with excess on occasion but it cannot be denied that she knows a trick or two about seduction.  Borage looks so … so … “fresh” and “vivid” and come-hither, reminding us that Spring is all about promise and potential, renewal and re-jewel.  Borage is very Alice in Wonderland … Eat Me.

1 Other common names include bee bread, burrage and common-bugloss — so says the following link which can give you more details on its botanical and nutritional make-up: www.nutrition-and-you.com/borage.html.

2What they don’t tell you is that it can be a handful to handle … it is very bristly and not very pleasant to touch.  Touch doesn’t rhyme with ‘ouch’ but that’s exactly what I exclaimed as I took to trimming it with a pair of scissors.  It is the leaves we are after (and flowers), not the hollow stems.
3 I suppose you could add the stems to soups … but I wasn’t making soup that day so … so I was able to give them the heave-ho without even a hint of culpability.  Once trimmed, the borage needs proper cleaning … Borage needs quite a lot of pampering, let me tell you.4 I had so many leaves one time that I had to clean them in the bathtub …5On this occasion, thankfully, I was able to wash and rinse them in the kitchen sink.
6When the water came to the boil, I added some salt and gently slid the borage leaves into the pot.  The idea is to wilt the borage … so only a few minutes of simmering will suffice.
7Drain the borage and allow to cool.
8 Shape the borage into little patties …9 Make some batter with plain flour and water.  Ice-cold water, however, and preferably sparkling.  Allow the batter to set for at least 20 minutes.10 Dip each borage patty into the batter and fry in some olive oil or other oil of your preference.  The borage has already cooked, remember, so the borage fritter is ready the minute the batter goes nice and crisp.11 Once on the plate, add a good pinch of salt and serve hot.12 Isn’t it amazing that we go from this ….13To this?

That is the magic of cooking.

Please note that you can fry the borage leaves, one at a time, without bothering to wilt them first.  Best to do that when you have someone to help you at in the kitchen!

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Fresh Photos of the Traditional Vignarola Recipe

I made a vignarola the other night with the help of a friend who had never made this dish before.  It was later than I had counted on by the time we got home and I was debating whether to give up on the idea but stubborness prevailed.  The fact that my friend is a seasoned cook was another important factor in this decision, and many hands make light work.  This dish does take a while to make: peas need to be shelled as do broadbeans (fava beans) and artichokes need to be trimmed and sliced, etc etc.  It is not a difficult dish, however, and everyone should enjoy it.  It is best eaten warm or at room temperature, and tastes wonderful the following day.

1This version has fresh asparagus in it … and I used guanciale (pork jowl) instead of pancetta.
3 4And it is topped off with a sprig of mint.

I had already written a post about it … if you’d like to see how it’s done, take a look.


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Video(s) of the Carbonara in the Making

Some friends on facebook very kindly re-posted my thoughts on what constituted a good, home-made carbonara and I was pleased to see how many comments this drew, many of which were also questions regarding the counter-intuitive tip of cooling the egg yolks in the freezer for a few minutes.

Here is the link if ever you’d like to take a look: http://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2012/06/15/carbonara-evolution-and-repetita-juvant/

I think many of you would agree with me when I say that there are actions that are easier to physically carry out than they are to describe with words … and so I thought I would take a shot at making a video about carbonara.

This is my first time and consequently, appealing to the rule that I am allowed a little bit of beginner’s chutzpah, well … I went a little wild, meaning … I tried my best.  Shooting wise, it was my supportive better half who was at the camera … and the results aren’t exactly professional.  What you see, is what you get.  If you can muster just a wee bit of patience, however, I think the frames will give you a clearer inkling of what freezing the egg yolks is all about.  And how you end up with a fantastic carbonara.

Let’s start with some photos first: IMG_5169 The grated pecorino romano cheese …IMG_5170 The guanciale (pork jowl) … cut into match-like shapes.IMG_5171 I added about 2 tablespoons of water to the frying pan and the guanciale.  This is not strictly necessary by the way … it’s just that I read that a little water helps the fat render better.IMG_5172 Here are 4 egg yolks in a bowl … and I placed the bowl in the freezer for about 5 minutes.IMG_5173 I used 400 g of mezze maniche pasta (100g pasta x 1 egg yolk x 30-50g guanciale per person).IMG_5190And here is the end and very delicious result.

And, if you are brave enough to want to explore the video links … here they are.  Enjoy … have a laugh … cooking should be fun too.

1 – Frying the guanciale: i.e. the pork jowl
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The United Nations of Ricotta – Azienda Agricola Depau, Grottaferrata

This post is not so much about ricotta as it is about the people who produce it.  About how the vagaries of livelihoods and traditional diet conspire to conjugate animal husbandry, emigration and terroir.

What if I told you that one of the best ricotta’s you would have the pleasure to eat can be sourced between Grottaferrata and Frascati, at the bottom of a hill, off the side of what used to be a country lane … and that is now fairly built up with houses on one side and olive trees on the other?  At the end of the road lies a tumbledown monster of an apartment block, very seventies in architectural outlook, with function and form conceding nothing to aesthetics, that now serves as home to squatters I believe.  Apparently, up until maybe ten years ago, it served as a pet shop which was really only a cover for its real business – an outlet for recreational drugs.  The ricotta farm lies to the right of this monster building and is easy to miss.  I missed it twice before finally ‘finding’ it, swerving steeply on the curve as it went sharply downhill.  The odd chick clucks about the farm.  And the vista in front is that of Rome.  The location is truly princely, the building(s) and estate less so.  The character Pop Larkin, H.E. Bates’s adorable farmer-gentleman (“The Darling Buds of May” and “A Little of What you Fancy” series) springs to mind.  He would describe this place as “Perfick.  Just perfick.”

Friends had recommended this ricotta outlet when we got into a conversation about how supermarkets are the ruin of local producers and shops etc and how, generally speaking, I bend over backwards to avoid them, shopping locally as much as I can and enjoy.  Even as I work to curb my zeal, I can get a trifle earnest when holding forth on the ‘criminal’ activites of supermarkets and so I think that the long-suffering friend in question supplied the name more to shut me up than anything else.  His sigh of relief when I got back to him in raptures over the ricotta was plain to see and he gave me the one-up thumb signal, glad to know that he had done his bit in expanding my choice of fair food shopping.  His eagerness to change topic of conversation was also very noticeable, I might add.

At the time, Elena, who is from Rumania and is now mother of two toddlers, was still working as housekeeper for us.  She almost wept when she tasted the ricotta.  “This is how we make it at home in Rumania! This is how our ricotta is!”  Well actually, “this” is how we make it in Italy too, I remonstrated.  This is what proper ricotta tastes like as opposed to the stuff one can buy in supermarkets which is more akin to cream cheese (viz the brand Philadelphia).

Last time I went to buy some ricotta, I discovered that the shepherd who helps to tend the sheep is actually from Rumania.  I already knew that Mr Depau, master shepherd and owner of the farm, is from Sardinia.  And that his wife, Luisa, is from Russia.  They organise dinners at their place when the weather permits.  Slow Food Frascati organised one such evening in September of 2011.  It’s not ‘smart’, in fact the term ‘casual’ is putting it mildly.  But when you have a canopy of stars over your head for a ceiling and the glittering view of the tiny twinkles of Rome’s lights in the background, the ambience takes on a glory all of its own.

Two summers ago, on the occasion of my husband’s birthday, we arranged to have a dinner there for our family and friends, some of whom were visiting from abroad.  They roasted a pig over the spit and everything we had for our meal, save for the bread, was all theirs … cheese, olives, pasta, tomato sauce and vegetables.  I remembering notching up the number of nationalities at the table and at the premises: Italy, of course, Holland, Thailand, Britain, Sweden, USA, Brazil, Rumania and Russia.  It’s what prompted me to name this post “United Nations of Ricotta”.   If only we could invoke the eating of ricotta to put an end to political tensions in the world today …

1Ricotta is made here every day.

2But I have learned my lesson … there is no point going there any time before 1 o’clock, even though they usually have their ricotta ready by noon.

7Here is the master shepherd, Mr Silvio Depau.

8And here is his son, Demetrio.  I am in love with his long eyelashes.

067There he is again, smiling (this was taken during the summer of 2012).  He is just so sweet.

6Here are the ?…. what do you call these things? Gareth Jones to the rescue!  Yes, now I know: churns.  The churns in which the milk is stored.

What you see below are the kinds of cheeses they produce, over and above the ricotta.

3Primosale …4Various pecorino cheeses … rocket/arugula has been added to one of them, and chilli flakes to another.5These pecorino cheese are more seasoned …

9And here is how the ricotta is made.  The vat with the hot ricotta in the making … can you see how the curds rise to the surface?

10Demetrio removes the ricotta with a slotted spoon …

11And places it in the plastic colanders.

12He shakes the colanders a bit to encourage any excess liquid to drain away.


And this was “my” ricotta, the one I took home, still hot when it was placed inside a plastic bag that fortunately didn’t leak in the car.

If you’re ever in the area, do be sure to visit.  If you’re a girl, Demetrio’s eyelashes alone are worth a visit.

Azienda Agricola Depau

Via Montiglioni 3, Grottaferrata, 06.9411984 o 340.1789505.

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Loving the Leftovers: Fried Ricotta – La Ricotta Fritta

It is not surprising that fresh ricotta, the proper kind made with ewe’s milk, is frequently served as an antipasto at the Roman table.  It is delicious served on its own, with just a pinch of salt and a drizzle of olive oil and accompanied by fragrant bread or white pizza.  A lot of taste and no work at all.  It is so good that it is a rare thing indeed for any to be left over.  And yet this is precisely what happened to me after a dinner not so long ago.  No problem, we ate more of it the following day.  When it came to the day after that, however, and with the concern that the use-by date was inching closer by the minute, I had to contemplate on how to proceed.

I could have used it to make a ricotta pie (crostata di ricotta), that would have been one option –  but with only a few months to go before we bare our vile bodies in sun workship during the bathing season, this family is shying away from desserts and superfluous accoutrements to the diet.  The only conclusion I could summon, in that non-rational way that accounts for so much human inconsistency in behaviour, was to resort to frying it.  I decided to use the leftover ricotta to make “la ricotta fritta” which is a staple of the traditional Roman fried antipasti (il fritto romano).  Why we don’t make this ricotta fritta more often beats me … See for yourself.

15 The ricotta in the bowl on the left (together with some mint leaves), some flour, and a couple of eggs.16 Some olive oil … to fry the ricotta in.17 Beat the eggs and add just a smidgeon of salt.18 Shape the ricotta into patties.19 Dredge them in the flour, shaking off any excess flour.20 Bathe them in the egg wash …21 Set aside …22 Start frying.23 Turn them over once …24 Drain off any excess oil on some kitchen paper …26 27 Serve piping hot.28Can you see why these ricotta fritters are so lovable!

Posted in Antipasti, Basic Techniques, Herbs and plants, italian home food, Loving the Leftovers, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments