Of course I believed Rome was superb, however I didn’t need to keep. A month – 3 at most – then I’d return to Sicily to complete the clockwise journey I had interrupted.
An space of the town known as Testaccio tripped me up with its workaday, simple attraction. It was the place I met my companion, Vincenzo, a Sicilian, and it was almost 12 years in the past that we settled right into a life there. Although Testaccio is within the coronary heart of the town, it feels extra like a village; it’s the place Roman meals – distinctive, conventional and inextricably tied with the historical past of day by day lifetime of the place – appears to permeate all the pieces. It was residing on this quarter of Rome that the concept “every cuisine tells a story” made absolute sense. I quickly found that should you ask somebody to point out you the right way to prepare dinner one thing, they nearly at all times offer you a narrative too – be it a small home story or an awesome, sweeping historical past. You additionally get lunch … presumably a rambling newspaper column out of it, too.
Living with a Sicilian, although, and 1 whose love of the meals of his house is deeply rooted, introduced a wealthy culinary vein to this Roman life – of citrus and ricotta, wild fennel and oregano; of dishes invested with the heat of the south and a aspect order of fried issues. Vincenzo’s Sicilian mother and father additionally lived in Rome and had been quietly conventional in the way in which they ate: sure flavours had been as omnipresent as lapses into dialect, sure habits seeming to have an excellent stronger maintain on their feelings for being away. Roman meals could have been all-pervasive, however their Sicilian habits had been presumably much more so. With them I grew to become accustomed to calling tomato sauce “salsa”, and to dishes sharpened with citrus, eggs hidden, breadcrumbs all over the place, pine nuts and raisins stuffed the place I wouldn’t count on. And each household event was celebrated with a triumphant, glittering Liberace of a cake known as cassata.
We visited Sicily numerous occasions through the years, however by no means Vincenzo’s residence city of Gela on the south coast. Open a information guide and it might properly recommend you avert your eyes as you drive previous Gela in your method to the Greek temples of Agrigento, or the baroque beauty of Ragusa. The guide might also note that Gela is infamous for its petroleum plant, one of its three chimneys like a menacing stripy sock. It was certainly the first thing we saw when, in May 2014, we drove our heroic Fiat Panda from Rome to Gela to open up the family house that had been closed for 15 years. While Vincenzo and his cousin puzzled over the water tank on the roof, I opened the kitchen blind, which disintegrated, letting light flood into the kitchen we had promised to take care of.
Gela is complicated. It is a reservoir of tastes and traditions; a place where brilliant and difficult seem magnified. Gela is also a place where family roots run deep in the fertile soil. As in Rome, I asked for recipes and received stories, which I took into the kitchen there, then back home to Rome and, in time, into my book.
I hope I have respected the traditional ways of doing things, and local formulae: these are very much my interpretations of Roman and Sicilian dishes. It is home cooking, which is, by its nature, anarchic, resourceful and personal.
It reflects the way we cook and eat: uncomplicated, adaptable food that reflects the season; it is rich in vegetables, pulses, fried things and wine; and suits our modest budget and the basic equipment we have in both kitchens. As a food writer living in Rome and sometimes Sicily, I also have an eye on my English kitchen, and how the recipes translate there. When I can’t find a kilo of sun-filled Sicilian tomatoes that cost almost nothing (which I can’t in Rome or London), I adapt. One thing I don’t compromise on is extra virgin olive oil: pungent, rich and ever so slightly bitter, it is the soul of almost everything I cook. Make the recipes your own, and bring your experience to them, while making yourself, your friends or your family something good to eat.
Tagliatelle with lemon and parmesan
If you whisk lemon juice with plenty of olive oil and lots of freshly grated parmesan you create a thick, grainy, deeply flavoured citrussy, cheesy sauce that you toss with hot pasta. The flavours work beautifully together; the sharp, lip-puckering acidity of the lemon is tempered by the parmesan, and the olive oil lends it a silky, glossy texture. All the ingredients come together to make a surprising sauce that clings to each strand of pasta and manages to be both soothing and vital at the same time.
It is important to whisk together the ingredients in a warm bowl – especially on a cold day. The modest heat helps the ingredients cohere. The hot pasta continues what the warm bowl started, bringing out the heady scent of the lemon juice, zest and the salty sweetness of the parmesan. I have also added rocket and basil to this in the past, which worked well.
220g dried or 350g fresh tagliatelle or linguine
75ml extra virgin olive oil
Grated zest and juice of 1 small unwaxed lemon
100g parmesan, grated, plus more for sprinkling
Salt, to taste
1 Bring a large pan of salted water to a fast boil. If you are using dried pasta, which takes about 8 minutes to cook, add that to the water now. If you are using fresh pasta, which only takes 2–3 minutes to cook, start making the sauce first.
2 Warm a large bowl under a hot running tap, then dry it. Add the olive oil, some of the lemon juice and a pinch of zest. Beat briefly with a little whisk until it emulsifies. Add the parmesan, beat again, taste and add some more lemon if you want it.
3 Whisk again until you have a thick, grainy cream. Taste it again; you probably won’t need salt with all the parmesan but if you feel the need, add a little more. If you are using fresh pasta, cook it now. When it’s ready, drain and quickly toss in the bowl with the lemon and parmesan sauce. Divide the pasta between warmed serving bowls, and sprinkle with more parmesan.
Eggs baked in greens
You can make this with bright, deep-green chard with great fleshy stems, or with spinach. The greens are steamed and mixed with a well-seasoned bechamel, in which you make holes to then bake the eggs.
600g chard or spinach
1 bay leaf
1 onion, studded with 3 cloves
50g butter, plus extra for greasing
50g parmesan, grated
A small handful of breadcrumbs
6 large eggs
Salt and black pepper
1 Cut the stems of the chard off the leaves, trimming any tough ends and pulling away any stringy bits. Cut the stems into short lengths, then roll the leaves into cigars and chop them roughly. Bring a large pan of water to the boil and add some salt.
2 Add the stems first and boil for a few minutes, then add the leaves and boil for a few minutes more, or until tender, then drain.
3 Put the milk in a pan along with the bay leaf and onion, warm it a little, then set aside to infuse for 30 minutes.
4 Melt the butter in a heavy pan, stir in the flour and cook for 2 minutes, or until it is a sticky paste that comes away from the sides of the pan, without allowing it to brown.
5 Remove the bay leaf and onion from the milk then, over a very low heat, pour it gradually into the paste, whisking constantly. Increase the heat a little and bring the sauce to simmering point, whisking, until it has thickened to the consistency of double cream. Turn down the heat and let the bechamel sauce simmer gently for 20 minutes. Stir in all but a small handful of the grated parmesan, taste and season with salt and pepper.
6 Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. Grease an ovenproof dish with butter and dust it with breadcrumbs.
7 Mix the chard with the bechamel, pour it into the dish and use a spoon to make 6 holes in the mixture. Carefully break an egg into each hole. Bake for 30 minutes, then let it sit for 10 minutes. Eat while still warm.
Spaghetti with breadcrumbs and anchovies
Anchovy breadcrumbs are inspired. Breadcrumbs – soft or hard, as you wish – are tossed in olive oil into which you have melted anchovies. Now, you know how we are often reassured that the fishiness of anchovies will slip away like an obedient manservant, leaving just the wonderful seasoning? This is not the case here. The anchovy flavour remains indignant, its fishy saltiness producing golden crumbs that shout: “I am an anchovy breadcrumb!” There’s no doubt, if you hate anchovies, you will hate these breadcrumbs. If you like anchovies, I suggest you make this for lunch tomorrow.
150ml extra virgin olive oil
4 anchovies in salt or 8 anchovies in oil, drained
100g breadcrumbs from the soft heart of a day-old loaf
3 tbsp finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
Salt and black pepper
1 Bring a large pan of water to the boil, add salt and stir. Add the spaghetti and cook until al dente.
2 Meanwhile, in a large frying pan over a low heat, warm the oil and anchovies for about 2 minutes, using a wooden spoon to nudge the fillets until they dissolve into the oil.
3 Add the breadcrumbs, increase the heat slightly, and fry, continuing to nudge, until they are golden and crisp. If they are ready before the pasta, pull the pan from the heat and keep them warm.
4 Drain the spaghetti, mix it with most of the crumbs in a serving bowl, toss, add the parsley and a grind of black pepper and toss again. Finish with the last few crumbs from the pan and serve.
Potato and aubergine cake
This is based on a recipe for gattò di patate from my Neapolitan almost-neighbour Daniela del Balzo. To your potatoes you add butter, parmesan and four eggs, then mix everything to a cream. You then press a layer of this mixture into a buttered and breadcrumb-dusted tin, cover that with a layer of mozzarella, smoked cheese and aubergine before finishing with another layer of potato, which you sprinkle with breadcrumbs, dot with butter and bake.
The quantities below are for a big gattò, which is perfect food for a crowd, or you could share this amount between two dishes: one to eat, one for the freezer. If you do make a big one, rest assured that it is delicious the next day. I warm a little butter in a frying pan, then reheat it slice by slice, which gives a nice crust.
As an accompaniment, greens or broccoli ripassati are good. I have, of course, put a fried egg on top of each slice, because what isn’t better with an egg on top? This dish brings on comforting waves of cheesy, buttery potato nostalgia for me. An ideal family dish for a weekday supper.
1.5kg potatoes, ideally several evenly sized medium-large ones
2 large aubergines
Olive oil, for frying
120g parmesan, grated
4 eggs, lightly beaten
100g salami, diced (optional)
50ml whole milk
Pinch of grated nutmeg
Fine breadcrumbs, for sprinkling
300g mozzarella, smoked cheese such as provola, or a mixture of the two
Salt and black pepper
1 Scrub, but don’t peel, the potatoes. Put them in a large pan, cover with cold water, add salt, bring to the boil, then cook at a lively simmer until they are tender to the point of a knife. Drain and set aside to cool.
2 Cut the aubergine into 5mm-thick slices lengthways, then salt them if you wish. Fry the slices in olive oil until golden-brown on both sides, or brush them with oil and cook them on a ridged grill pan. Remove and drain on kitchen paper.
3 Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. Once the potatoes are cool enough to handle, peel them, then pass them through a potato ricer or food mill, or mash them in a large bowl.
4 Add the grated parmesan, half the butter, the eggs, the salami if you are using it and the milk. Add a pinch of nutmeg, season and mix well.
5 Use half the remaining butter to grease a large ovenproof dish, then dust it with fine breadcrumbs. Press half the potato mixture into the bottom of the dish. Layer the slices of aubergine on top.
6 Dice or thinly slice the cheese(s) and make a layer of both on top of the potato. Cover the cheese with the rest of the potato mixture, pressing the top down firmly. Sprinkle lightly with breadcrumbs and dot with the last of the butter.
7 Bake for 40–50 minutes, or until the top is golden and crusty. Allow to sit for 10 minutes before serving in generous squares. Remember, it is still very good the next day.
A summer salad of farro, eggs, tuna and capers
I considered giving farro its own chapter, so useful and good is this sturdy grain. An early form of wheat, it (sometimes called emmer wheat) was a staple in early Roman times, thanks to its high protein content, vitamins and slow release of energy. It is often confused with spelt, which is also wheat, but a different variety, although the two are often interchangeable in the kitchen.
Roman soldiers marched for miles on farro, I tell my chip, ketchup and legionary-loving son – which works, miraculously. A stalwart grain, it looks a bit like plump brown rice, and it has a truly pleasant taste: mild, nutty and chewy. If you buy it polished and cracked (often labelled as quick-cook) it needs no soaking and cooks in about 20 minutes.
In winter, I use farro in bean soups in much the same way I would pasta, adding it towards the end of cooking so that it swells and absorbs the flavours. In summer, with its long, slow days and indecisive appetites, farro comes into its own as a salad that can be eaten either now or later, as a standalone or alongside a lamb chop, and can be made to go a bit further with extra ingredients if more guests turn up. With farro as your base, anything goes. Eggs and tuna are my favourites, along with capers, tomatoes, olives and some chopped red onion, making it a sort of farro niçoise, I suppose.
50g capers in salt
1 small red onion or 2 shallots
3 ripe tomatoes or 12 cherry tomatoes
A handful of basil
200g tuna in olive oil, drained
100g black olives
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and black pepper
1 Rinse and drain the farro, then put it in a saucepan, cover with about 7cm water, add a pinch of salt and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for 15–20 minutes, or until the farro is tender, but still has some bite. Drain and set aside.
2 Meanwhile, soak the capers in cold water for 10 minutes, then drain and chop them. Hard-boil the eggs, then drain and peel them when cool enough. Finely dice the onion and roughly chop the tomatoes. Tear the basil into little pieces.
3 Put the farro in a large bowl, add all the other ingredients except the eggs, season with salt, pour over some olive oil and toss well. Halve or quarter the eggs and put them on top.
4 Serve, ideally while the farro is still slightly warm.
Potato, onion and caper salad
Amiable and sturdy, with a soft, neutral flavour, potatoes don’t just stand up to strong flavours, they embrace them. This is where a fair number of my pre-boiled potatoes end up. The combination of the sweet, slightly sharp onion and the spritely, salty bite of capers is great. This is also good with some tuna or hard-boiled eggs, or both – in which case you might add some black olives as well: the ones that are wrinkled and black as night.
2 large potatoes (about 800g)
1 large red onion
2–3 tbsp red wine vinegar
60g capers in salt
6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice or 1 tbsp red wine vinegar
A small handful of flat-leaf parsley, mint or dill, chopped
1 Scrub but don’t peel the potatoes. Put them in a large saucepan, cover with cold water, add salt, bring to the boil, then cook at a lively simmer until tender to the point of a knife. Drain and leave to cool.
2 Slice the onion into slender half-moons, soak them in a bowl of cold water with the red wine vinegar for 15 minutes, then drain. Meanwhile, soak the capers for 15 minutes, then rinse thoroughly.
3 Whisk together a dressing of extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice or vinegar and a pinch of salt.
4 Once the potatoes are cool enough to handle, peel them. Slice them roughly, put them in a bowl and scatter over the onion, capers and herbs. Pour over the dressing, toss gently (best to use your hands) and serve.
Broad bean, fennel and mint salad
A bright combination of flavours: sweetly waxy beans, aromatic fennel and pungent mint, all sweetened slightly by orange. Unless the beans are tiny, I think they really need peeling here. The addition of prosciutto or feta and focaccia turns a salad into lunch.
150g small and tender shelled broad beans (about 500g in their pods)
1 large or 2 small bulbs of fennel
A handful of mint
5 tbsp olive oil
Juice of 1 orange
Salt and black pepper
A pinch of dried oregano (optional)
Prosciutto or feta, to serve (optional)
1 Plunge the broad beans into boiling water briefly, then straight into cold water. Remove their white coats.
2 Trim the fennel, removing the tougher outer layer (you can use this for stock) and setting aside any feathery fronds, then slice it as thinly as possible.
3 Tear the mint into little pieces with your fingers. In a small bowl, whisk together the olive oil, orange juice, salt and oregano, if you are using it.
4 In a serving bowl, mix the beans, fennel and mint with the dressing. If you are adding prosciutto or cheese, a flatter dish is better, so that you can arrange it on top.
Grape and tomato salad
There is something poetic about this September salad of two vine fruits. The last of the tomatoes, ripe with sun, with the first of the grapes, the onion and vinegar sharpening the edges like a heavy pencil outline. The trick of soaking the onion in a little red wine vinegar is the key to this: it takes the eye-watering edge off the onion, while keeping all the flavour. To me, this seems a most Sicilian combination, a sort of September panzanella – although having searched through a lot of books, it isn’t mentioned anywhere.
Not that it matters. This is one for a warm night, to serve with grilled meat or vegetables cooked over charcoal or on a griddle pan, with the door wide open so the smoke can drift out while the warm night drifts in. Don’t forget the croutons, which soak up the plentiful juices. They are the business.
1 small red onion
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
4 ripe tomatoes
5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for the croutons
250g red grapes
A small handful of basil
2 thick slices of stale bread
1 Thinly slice the onion and put in a small bowl with the red wine vinegar to marinate.
2 Cut the tomatoes in half, remove the hard core, then with the back of a spoon, squeeze the juice and seeds into a sieve over the onion bowl to get out all the juice. Discard the seeds. Add the oil, season with salt and mix together.
3 Chop the crushed tomato into chunks and the grapes in half, flicking out any pips as you go. Rip the basil into little bits. Add all three to the onion bowl and leave to marinate for as long as you want.
4 Cut the bread into chunks and fry them in olive oil in a heavy-based pan until golden and crisp. Add the croutons to the salad just before serving.