Pane frattau, of sorts

Raise your hand if you find recipes daunting. Yep, me too.

I mean, when it comes to baking, recipes are my bible. I cling to every word, obey even the most menial of instructions, weigh ingredients obsessively, time the exact number of seconds needed to whisk eggs and sugar. Baking is like cooking blind – you have no idea what the dish will actually become. You have runny, sticky dough and have to pray that it will turn into a dense pancake or fluffy bread.

But cooking, man, I don’t know. I can’t follow recipes. I stray. While I take comfort in religiously obeying my cake recipes, cooking ones always seem so… long. Just too long. It may be the never-ending lists of ingredients, the confusing measurements (a quarter of a ginger root, chopped. Three whispers of crushed garlic), or maybe just the fact that I can see and taste the food transforming in front of my eyes, which gives me false sense of control. I don’t know.

So while I observe the wonderfully shot, polished recipes of Lady and and Pups, frowning at a list of ingredients that I wouldn’t even know where to find, wondering if I do have time to marinate my chicken for six hours while the bread is proofing and I knead my hand smashed noodles – also do I need an ice cream bucket in my life? – I just want to make something that involves a few ingredients and a few steps. I’ll just bookmark that turmeric butter chicken recipe and never click on it again.

So this is a take on Pane Frattau, a Sardinian dish which I first tried in a little cafe in Ealing (figures). It’s layers of Carasau bread, softened, with tomato sauce and a poached egg. Well, in my case, fried, because I don’t understand how anyone could choose poached over fried. It’s beautifully simple, if a little lazy, but somehow the bright passata and the sticky egg old on soft, chewy bread just make for a perfect meal.

I know, I speak about obscure ingredients and then I make something with Carasau bread? I know, I know. But you can find this moreish, thin crispy bread in any M&S and some larger supermarkets.

Pane Frattau

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Ingredients (serves 2):

3 or 4 leaves of pane carasau

a little hot water

half a bottle of good tomato passata

2 eggs

olive oil

some grated pecorino cheese

 

Pour some hot water onto each leaf of bread and let it soak for a a coupe of minutes, until soft. Move to a skillet or any oven-safe tray, spoon over some tomato passata, add a little olive oil, salt and pepper. Crack the eggs into the dish and bake in the over at 180° for 10-15 minutes, until the eggs are done. Sprinkle with pecorino and, if you have spare burrata, throw that in there too (why not?). Burrata makes everything better.

 

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Caprese on toast

As I write this, it’s hailing in London. Hailing in April.

I want a holiday. I need a holiday. I just need to be somewhere else for a bit, sand burning my feet and sea water between my fingers, or a little wooden cabin with a view of barren, pointy mountains, it doesn’t really matter. Things always seem so simple on holiday, as if life, stripped of all its mundain aspects – the cleaning, the shopping, the commute to work- shone it all its book-reading, epiphany-laden true glory. A holiday is as close as I get to understanding the true meaning of life.

So I make myself something that reminds me of home, of warmth, of the aromatic smell of rosemary and sage. When you live 900 miles away from the place you grew up in, you do silly things like overpaying for the brand of ricotta your mum buys, even if you can’t really tell the difference. You start craving things you never even knew you liked that much, like a specific brand of breakfast cookies that was always, always in your cupboard.

There are a few things I make myself when I miss home: pasta with cherry tomatoes, with lashings of olive oil and basil, sweet and tart and happy like a warm summer evening. And my mum’s pasta with tuna, made with the canned sort, speckled with chopped parsley; or a fiery, warming arrabbiata sauce.

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But sometimes, I crave something that I never even really understood in the first place: a caprese salad. Often eaten at the seaside, when normal people seem to think it’s too hot to eat hot food (not me – happy to have lasagne in 40°-degree Rome), it also features in laminated menus of tourist-trap restaurants: perfect rounds of white, dry, bland mozzarella; equally perfect rounds of watery tomatoes, big basil leaves.

My version is served on toast, good toast, sourdough from Bread Ahead – but frankly, you could put this on any form or shape of crusty bread. It’s thin slices of ripe, colourful tomatoes, maldon salt and pepper, amber-coloured olive oil and half a burrata. Because, I mean, why buy mozzarella when you can have its creamy, velvety cousin? I thought so.

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Caprese on toast (serves two)

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a couple of ripe tomatoes

some burrata or, failing that, mozzarella

two slices of crusty bread

olive oil, salt, pepper

Slice the tomatoes thinly, arrange on the bread and place some burrata on top. You could also use the creamy burrata as the first layer of this open face sandwich. Add some olive oil, salt and pepper.

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Marmite Toast. No, really.

I’m perched on the sofa and Alex is cooking. He’s an ambitious cook, Alex; he will never whip up something quick and easy – if he wants to cook, then he will make the most complicated stew from scratch and spend hours pottering in the kitchen, the radio on, incredibly focused on endless tasks, piles of empty bowls and carrot peel.

As I write this, he feeds me thin slices of mature cheddar. The supermarket stuff, of the perfectly square sort that comes in a packet. He’s making a lentil pie and I hear the comforting sound of the gas hob, the quiet flame, the pots bubbling. The kitchen smells of soffritto, celery and bay leaves. The room is warm, filled with dense cooking vapour. Outside, it’s still winter – winter always seems to last forever.

When he leaves the room, I quietly go by the pan and steal a spoonful of lentils – even though they’re not quite cooked all the way through yet, still a little crunchy and floury, a good half hour away from becoming a silken mash. I always used to do this with my mum’s sauces, I would tear a piece of bread from a loaf and dunk it in the bubbly sauce, and then my mum would wonder why she had made so little. ‘The tomatoes must have been very watery, the sauce shrunk a lot’.

I bought some baguette from the Japanese bakery earlier. I went in for a couple of pretty, polished custard buns – their surface shiny, a faint eggy smell – but the lady begged me to take a baguette as well, someone had cancelled their order. It’s beautiful, a thick crust, a geometrical pattern on the back. I decide to make toast.

afterlight

There are a lot of things I used to despise as a kid and love now – anything in vinegar, anchovies, capers. But I was already in my twenties when I tried Marmite for the first time, and for years I would go on and on to anyone who would listen about how I thought Marmite was gross and inedible and I didn’t understand it.

Marmite is a strange, thick spread, dark as charcoal, with its aggressive smell and taste that divides couples and families and friends. Its unapologetic sincerity is even in the slogan: you may love it, you may gag (I’m paraphrasing).

And yet a few weeks ago, for some reason, I just felt compelled to try it again. And I loved it. I genuinely loved it. I suddenly understood it, I appreciated its saltiness, the yeast, the savouriness.

It was like when you a see a modern painting and it doesn’t speak to you and then someone explains the story, the painter’s intentions, their life,  their pain, and suddenly you see it all on the canvas, in the brushes and curves and splatters of colour – you just get it.

They say it’s an acquired taste. I like the notion of an acquired taste. I’m not sure it’s scientific but I do hope it’s true. I hope that when you try or read or see something a certain number of times, you can learn to appreciate it, to love it. Because if you can train yourself to love everything, then surely it will make life easier?

Alex is still in the middle of the action, I hear cutlery clanking and rattling. I cut a thick slice of baguette, toast it ever so slightly, the edges burning much faster than the soft centre. I smear an indecent amount of butter on it, so much that when it starts melting it treacles down the sides, and then a little marmite, dark and gloopy, salty and yeasty, like unfiltered beer, mixing with the milky sweetness of butter. I eat the toast still enveloped in the artificial warmth of the kitchen. The oven is now on.

Once you start liking Marmite, there’s no going back.

Cold roasted peppers

You may not know this yet, but this is just the recipe you were looking for. Because I bet you’ve always wanted to try a simple side that takes three hours to make, during which you have to patiently stay within a 2-meter-radius of the oven. I bet you’ve always thought ‘oh, that recipe sounds nice, but I wish it involved a 70% chance of burning myself’.

So yes, this recipe is one which feels slightly ridiculous to even jolt down and that could be condensed into one snappy line: roast some peppers. That’s it. Yet it involves complicated techniques to avoid grilling yourself, knee-length oven mitts, hours of waiting. And what you get is a side dish. A side. Not a juicy main oozing sauce, no complex flavours, no fragrant mixes of spices. This is as simple and is linear as it gets.

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Then why make them? Because they’re worth it, that’s why. My mum has been making these since the beginning of time (well, of my time, anyway), jewel-hued fillets of ripe peppers, bursting with flavours, the slight kick of garlic, the bright red colours in a sea of golden olive oil. This dish is what lead her to brag about the fact that her daughter ‘loved vegetables, even peppers’ (roasted into submission, doused with olive oil and on warm bread, that is).

I believe raw peppers are an epidemic of our time, their sour bitterness spoiling just about everything in the salad aisle, ruining delicate cous cous, taking over sweet tomatoes, overpowering the freshest lamb lettuce, leaving an aftertaste that will stay with you long after the spinach is gone from between your teeth.

But when you roast them, something utterly magical happens. They become soft, juicy, sweet, bordering on caramelised, fresh and deeply satisfying at the same time. They become the perfect side to just about everything, amazing on toast, sandwiched between two slices of crusty bread, served with some white rice, used to make a pasta salad, or just eaten straight from the fridge, so cold they hurt your teeth, the olive oil dripping onto the floor, slurped back like herrings in Holland.

Cold roasted peppers

(serves about 4 people)

four or five red peppers (always, always choose red, they have much more pulp)

olive oil

a couple of garlic cloves

some fresh parsley

Set your oven to 200°, place the peppers onto baking paper in a tray and let them roast for as long as it takes, turning them every so often. They should charred, which means, well, their skin should start to turn black. They will release a lot of juice and will be very soft when they are ready.

Once ready, take them out of the oven and place them in a paper or plastic bag, closed, for an hour, and try not to forget about them. But it’s fine if you do. They’ll wait for you.

When they’re cold, peeling them should be easy, the skin will be peeling off like a dream. Remove the seeds and slice the pepper to create beautiful fillets.

Place in a tray, cover with good quality olive oil, a couple of cloves of garlic, a little chopped parsley and cover. let the flavours mingle in the fridge for at least an hour, and serve with and on everything.

Once you try them, you’ll get why that grill-shaped burn on your forearm was absolutely worth it.

 

Easy Spag Bol, the Italian way

“What is patriotism but the love of the food one ate as a child?” ― Lin Yutang

Ragù pasta

I have often been told I am an ‘Italian food purist’ or even, well, a snob, and maybe that’s true, because it’s physically painful to see menu items called ‘Cajun chicken creamy pasta’. My heart. I don’t think chicken and beef belong on pizza and I believe sliced jalapeno should stay as far away as possible from my penne.

I will admit that this is a little hypocritical. I have no problems scoffing down California Rolls and won’t turn down a plate of delicious sushi because it has mayo in it. Or passion fruit puree, for that matter.

In the darkest, loneliest nights of revision time as a student, when my fridge was empty and I had to scavenge every corner of my tiny kitchen to put together what could pass as a meal, I would occasionally gorge on Korean rice dumplings with Croatian ajvar sauce, or munch on pilau rice with soy sauce and prosciutto. I won’t judge you for adding kimchi to your hot dog, either (in fact, can I have some? I love kimchi). So I should be ok with Anglo-Italian food, right?

Beeep. Wrong. Sorry, Nigella, I love you dearly, but your Marmite spaghetti haunt me in my darkest nightmares. And my soul hurts when I see that gloopy, overcooked mess that many pubs, restaurants and households in Britain call ‘spag bol’. Even the name makes me shiver. Spagbol. Sounds like something you would fish out of a can.

A little bit of background: Spag bol is actually a rendition of one of my favourite Italian dishes, a hearty pasta dish with a rich, meaty sauce traditionally made out of a mixture of slow-cooked ground meats. The sauce, called ‘ragù alla Bolognese’, is traditionally served with fresh tagliatelle rather than spaghetti – in fact, the regional cuisine of Emilia-Romagna relies on fresh egg pasta rather than dried pasta, the latter being a staple in southern Italy.

If you were to google ragù recipes, you’d find billions of them. Some use mortadella, pancetta, even prosciutto; others boast cream and milk; there is white wine, red wine, beef stock. The cooking time tends to be long. Like, 3 hours long. Long. But the below recipe, which my mum has been making ever since I can remember, is much quicker*, easy, and delicious. It may still take longer than swiftly opening a can and pouring its soggy content into a bowl, but it’s worth it. Really.

This is not a purist recipe; instead of using pancetta together with my ground beef, I love using leaner Italian-style sausage. This is something both my grandmothers used to do (but neither of them is from Emilia-Romagna, so I can’t really claim any sort of superior authenticity). The rest is incredibly simple – there is some chopping, some braising, some waiting around and watching the sauce bubble while being enveloped by the most amazing and comforting smell. This dish is a bowl of happiness and is the sort of food that can literally fix your mood. It’s perfect for rainy days or whenever you need extra TLC. It also freezes very well – I tend to make huge batches of it and simply defrost whenever needed.

Ragù sauce (or, Spag Bol sauce)
makes 6 portions

Ragù

500 g ground beef
300 grams Italian-style sausage
1 big onion, a few celery hearts, a couple of carrots
a glass of red wine (optional)
salt and pepper
2 cans of chopped plum tomatoes, plus some passata.
parmesan to serve

Chop the onion, celery and carrots as finely as you can – you could even blitz them a couple of times in a mixer if you have it. In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and add the chopped vegetables. Shallow-fry the mixture on medium heat for a few minutes, until they have softened.

Increase the heat slightly and add the ground meat (for the sausages, you will have to cut them open and remove the film) and brown it for about 10 minutes. The meat will release some liquid; wait until this has evaporated before adding any other liquid.

Once the meat is browned, you can add your red wine and canned tomatoes. If you want the ragù to be extra tomato-y, you can add some tomato paste as well. Add salt and pepper to taste and mix well, breaking the plum tomatoes with a wooden spoon. Partially cover the pan with a lid and let the ragù bubble away on medium heat for at least an hour. This keeps getting better and better the more you cook it, so you could leave it going for longer: just add some liquid (passata or even water) if it looks a bit dry, and give it another stir.

Traditionally served with tagliatelle, ragù is also lovely with spaghetti, short pasta, in lasagna or cannelloni or with gnocchi. You can add herbs if you want (I love a bit of basil in it) and you can experiment with the meat. If serving this with pasta I recommend mixing the cooked pasta and the sauce together in a pan, rather than spooning the sauce over the pasta. This prevents te pasta from going sticky and it means that the flavours mix better together.

*quicker, not quick. Any recipe that promises a cooking time of less than twenty minutes will lack flavour, complexity, depth.

My lazy kitchen: Croque monsieur bake

When it comes to cooking, I tend to be pretty lazy. Maybe not pierce-the-film lazy, but if I’m attempting a really complicated recipe with lots of steps and pots bubbling on the stove at the same time, chances are I will give up and just have some toast instead.

Don’t get me wrong, making something from scratch is a beautiful, beautiful thing. I’ve made bread before and once it was ready I almost considered taking a picture to keep in my wallet. It’s satisfying and humbling. At the same time, it takes hours – and my arms were still sore a week later.

There is a beauty to lazy cooking, too. It’s a little sloppy but simple in a wondeful way. I love roughly chopping vegetables and dicing beef and just abandoning them in a slow-cooker, drowned in glossy stock and red wine, only to come back at the end of the day to the perfect stew. Lazy dishes aren’t always quick – they are about minimal effort and tasty, satisfying results.

This Croque Monsieur bake is inspired by this Nigella recipe, although I tweaked it quite a bit. It’s basically a savoury bread and butter pudding with cheese and ham and everything nice. It’s super easy to make and perfect for brunch or lazy Sundays – the sort of thing where you simply lug the dish to the bed and eat it absent-mindedly while making plans for the day.

I used different cheese to Nigella – Gouda for the sandwiches and Roman Pecorino to grate on top. Pecorino is sharp and instense and lovely and it cuts through the buttery, nutty Gouda wonderfully, but this would be nice with mature cheddar or gruyere. I also used Henderson’s sauce instead of Worcestershire –  a good option if you want to skip the ham out and make this a vegetarian dish. Henderson’s pretty hard to find if you don’t live in Yorkishire, but hey, Amazon is your friend.

Croque Monsieur Bake

Croque Monsieur Bake

Ingredients:

  • slices ready-sliced brown bread
  • dijon mustard, to taste
  • slices Gouda cheese
  • slices smoked ham
  • 6 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon maldon salt (or ½ teaspoon table salt)
  • 80 ml full fat milk
  • 4 tablespoons grated Pecorino cheese
  • sprinkling of Henderson’s sauce

Spread each slice of bread with mustard, then make a sandwich with one slice of ham and two slices of cheese. Cut each sandwich in two triangles and nestle them into an ovenproof dish.

Beat together the eggs, salt and milk and then pour the creamy mix over the sandwiches.

Cover the dish with clingfilm and leave in the fridge overnight.

The following morning, preheat the oven to 200°C. Take the dish out of the fridge, remove the clingfilm, add Henderson’s sauce and grated cheese and bake in the oven for 25 minutes.

Once it’s all golden, crispy and gooey, eat. Lovely with a cup of strong tea.

(I think this would work wonderfully as Croque Madame, too; just fry an egg and place it on top of the sandwiches before serving).

My comfort food: a genealogy

PieWhat is comfort food anyway? To me, it has to do with memories, love, nostalgia, carbs and shame. Yes, shame. It’s probably because when you grow up with a mum who’s a bit of a health freak (although she can easily be spotted dunking biscuits in Nutella), eating anything that’s fried and rich and delicious comes with just a pinch of shame, and tends to be done in secret.

When I was in school, I remember going to the pizza shop and buying piping hot supplis, with that crispy breadcrumb shell and the melting mozzarella heart, then eating them so quickly they would burn the tip of my tongue, before scrunching up the greasy brown paper bag and knocking on the door. Then I would have lunch, of course.

When my mum worked until four and I was alone at lunch, then I’d have a proper feast. I’d pop to the supermarket on my way home from school and buy mini salamis, Sofficini (one of my absolute favourite things when I was a kid –think little crepe pockets, stuffed with gooey, cheesy tomato sauce and deep fried – then frozen) and a pint of Haagen Dazs ice cream. And then I’d eat all of it (the little fried crepes, the salami, the whole pint of Macadamia Brittle ice cream) in front of the telly and hide the cardboard boxes. I’d have some salad, too – so I could tell my mum I had had salad for lunch and only lie by omission, which seemed significantly better than ‘regular’ lying to a logical, somewhat cynical sixteen-year-old with an unquenchable hunger and too much pocket money for her own good.

Then there’s my mum’s cherry tomato pasta. It’s simple and perfect, sun-drenched cherry tomatoes blistered in olive oil with a pinch of sea salt and some basil until they go gooey, sweet and tart and savoury at the same time, with copious amounts of pecorino cheese. It’s the kind of recipe you could make with one hand while reading a book and having a pleasant conversation about the weather, but my mum’s is truly special – maybe because she would make it for me.

When you leave home you start really appreciating others making food for you, because it’s the purest, simplest act of love – to me, when someone hands you you a steaming bowl of pasta they made especially for you, it’s like they’re handing you a piece of them. My mum has always been convinced that if you cook when you’re in a bad mood, those feelings find their way into the food and they poison it with bitter, sour notes. As a cynical teenager of course I thought it was the most absurd thing, but then I found out Salman Rushdie seems to believe the same. I like that idea, anyway. That if you cook with love, or someone else does for you, your food will always taste nice. I guess it depends on how hungry you are.

 

Lemon poppy seed loaf
My mum also makes an amazing pasta with tuna. She uses big, juicy plum tomatoes, canned tuna, chili flakes and parsley. It’s the most more-ish thing you’ll ever eat – it shouldn’t be, because it’s really just tuna and tomatoes, but that sauce is one of the tastiest, most fragrant I’ve ever tasted.

Incidentally, pasta with tuna is also one of the two things my dad can cook. Yes, two. My whole life, I only remember my dad cooking either pasta with tuna or pasta fredda (pasta salad). I have no idea how he survived when he lived on his own – this was Italy in the 80s, where Pot Noodle didn’t exist and ready meals just weren’t a thing. His pasta with tuna tastes like canned tuna swimming in oil, and it looks like it too.

Another one of my favourite comfort foods is my auntie’s ricotta cheesecake: a creamy and indulgent cake with a thick, wobbly ricotta crust and jewel-like blueberries. She lives in a tiny village in the Alps and used to make it every single time I went to visit – I can’t remember why. I suppose she made it once and I loved it so much she decided it was my favourite. And maybe it is. I remember eating a beautiful, wobbly slice of that creamy goodness while sipping elderflower syrup, made with the flowers my aunt had picked, in a tall glass of fizzy water. See, comfort to me is about that: warmth, family and good, hazy memories. It’s about nostalgia, flavours I long for, places I haven’t seen in too long, green mountains against blue skies, and late summer thunderstorms.

Meringue
It’s also about instant ramen. Yes, yes, instant ramen. Noodles. A bowl of hot, spicy, steamy instant noodles.
Here’s where I stand on British noodles: no. Just no. Whether it is Pot Noodles or Super Noodle, whenever they are made in Britain I just can’t bring myself to eat them. They taste like watered down chicken stock and salt, and have rubbery noodles and floating sweetcorn that never quite re-hydrates properly. No.

When it comes to noodles, they have to be made in Korea, Singapore, Japan. This is my favourite brand – they’re hot, so hot it hurts, but they are amazing. I started buying them when I was in school, seduced by the utter simplicity of the preparation, by how boiling water from the kettle could transform a square pack of dried noodles into a steaming bowl of perfection. I remember eating them on grey and cold afternoons, my eyes a little watery, a runny nose, a yellowed book. They are still, to me, a liquid blanket for those cold, lazy days when I want something warming but just can’t bring myself to cook.

When I started uni I had a regular post-exam treat, this cheesy frozen mash with bits of ham in it. I’d come home with a headache, make myself a bowl of this and just be in my happy place for the rest of the day, topping up my tea every hour or so and watching silly TV shows in my favourite pajamas. The day of an exam is always special, the feeling of having achieved something, that those two hours of your day have been so productive you don’t really have to do anything else. And the cheesy mash.

When I moved to Berlin, pretzels were my go-to comfort food. Shiny, chewy soft pretzels, with crystals of salt the size of my fist. I’d have them for breakfast, as a snack, before a night out and after – to soak up the alcohol, you know. 

Bread has always been the ultimate comfort food. I’d toast it and drizzle olive oil, and eat it standing by the sink on a lazy Saturday afternoon while my dad watched the football; I would spread some butter on it and dunk it in soft boiled eggs with my mum, chatting about school and boys, or slice my grandad’s ciaiuscolo and eat it between two slices of proper, crusty bread.

I do wish my comfort food resembled fruit salads or boiled broccoli. It just doesn’t. But I’ll have bread, butter and sugar any day.