This rainy week in September, all I want to eat is pasta. Spaghetti, rigatoni, penne, macaroni. At first I thought it was early hibernation, resentment for the horizontal rain that struck me halfway home. Or a sense of habitual wanderlust: for four years during university, I spent each September in Italy, on language courses and then visiting friends. Rome, Florence, Perugia, Bari.
But the real reason I have been eating only pasta for a week is because I fell headfirst into the recipe book by my bed, Five Quarters: Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome. It has everything I love from the original blog, rachel eats: clean, elegant writing, natural photos and a perfectly seasoned mix of stories from England and Italy.
Rachel Roddy’s recipes take me right back to those Italian kitchens I visited, waiting for the water to boil and snacking on scraps of parmesan if we ate late in the evening. People would drop by with wine, stories, chestnuts in the autumn, and there would always be enough for everyone, another handful of pasta. There, I mostly watched, chopped vegetables, set the table. I let the Italians salt the water, test the spaghetti to see if it was al dente.
The descriptions in Five Quarters perfectly capture that outsider’s gaze: an English woman in Rome for ten years, first starry-eyed, on holiday, and then, when she stayed, determined to master the peculiarities of Roman cooking.
Since each recipe, in true Italian style, only has a few ingredients, you know they have to be of good quality. When I picked up my burrata last week, I bought good spaghetti, pancetta and pecorino romano to start with the classic, spaghetti alla carbonara. Which, up until now, I had never actually made at home, intimidated by my Italian flatmate’s scorn at the French use of 1) cheap supermarket pasta 2) crème fraîche and lardons, instead of the proper egg and fatty pancetta or guanciale. The creamy sauce is all alchemy, no cream at all, just eggs whisked with finely grated cheese, tossed with the pasta and a little of the cooking water. If it gets too hot, it scrambles. Too cool or too much water, egg soup. I followed the instructions, and it worked, più o meno, more or less. There is always room for improvement. Italian food, Roman food, as Rachel explains, is all about la pratica, practice. I thoroughly appreciated her careful details, for steps as simple as how much water? how much salt?
So I practiced: I tried the pasta e ceci, a thick chickpea soup fragrant with rosemary, a fat anchovy for a kick of salt. I appreciated that there were two versions, for it is one of my favourite dishes. And a soup that is even better the next day. One lunchtime I spent a meditative hour boiling broccoli, then cooking it again with garlic, oil and chilli until it collapsed into a kind of pesto. That reminded me of waiting impatiently, in a Perugian kitchen, for a friend to do the same with a cauliflower. Nothing but time, oil and garlic, and again, that pasta water, to reduce it to its essence.
Ever since I read about it on her blog, the red pepper stew or peperonata has been a staple in our house. I couldn’t resist making it again from the book.It goes with everything – meat, fish, piled on bread – hot or cold. Breakfast today was a fried egg on toast, rocket and a tangle of silky strands of peppers and onion. It is the tail end of the peach season, so I tried the recipe for pesche ripiene, baked in halves with a cap of buttery almond paste. (Equally good with large plums.) Could barely save one for breakfast the next day.
So much of Five Quarters has me fall down a rabbit hole of memories, that it feels like a kindred spirit: the pinzimonio di ceci I also tried at the River Café on my 25th birthday; the description of figs sandwiched with pizza bianca and prosciutto that just conjures Rome for me, figs so sweet they might have been dipped in honey. The caramelised oranges remind me of my granny.
It is one for quiet days at home, for simple, flavourful cooking with carefully chosen ingredients. Like the pasta e broccoli, the end result is greater than the sum of its parts. I have a mental list of the recipes I need to try: fettucine with butter and anchovies, a proper puttanesca, and now that it is quince season again, cotogna in composta. And a growing list of places to visit and things to eat when I do go back to Rome – the restaurants, the market in Testaccio – to soak up that incredible atmosphere the book captures so well.
Pasta e ceci
adapted from Five Quarters by Rachel Roddy. I hesitated at which recipe to write about, and since each one is beautifully detailed, I didn’t want to simplify or paraphrase. When I made the pasta e ceci, I used the ingredients from the first recipe and the method from the second, using tinned chickpeas and blending half because I like it thick. Hopefully it is up to scratch. Roddy recommends a “short tubular pasta, tubetti, ditalini or broken tagliatelle”. I used small penne – either way, it will be eaten with a spoon so choose accordingly!
4 tbs olive oil
2 garlic cloves, peeled
2 sprigs rosemary
2 large anchovies, in oil
2 tins chickpeas (400g each), drained
200g plum tomatoes (ripe, fresh ones, or good-quality tinned), chopped
200g pasta (see note above)
salt and pepper
In a large saucepan on a medium heat, heat the olive oil and gently cook the garlic cloves (crushed with the back of a knife), the whole sprigs of rosemary and the anchovies. When the garlic starts to go golden, remove it and the rosemary from the oil (or the garlic risks burning and the rosemary will fall apart leaving uncomfortable spines in your soup). By now the anchovies should have dissolved. Add the tomatoes and squash them gently. Cook for a few minutes, add chickpeas. Boil a kettle and pour 1 litre hot water into the pan. Bring to a boil.
[At this point I should have let the soup simmer for a while to thicken and deepen the flavours. But I was very hungry. And it was still good. At your discretion.]
Carefully remove about half the soup and blend. (Or blend roughly with a stick blender, careful not to splash the hot liquid, leaving plenty of chickpeas whole.) If you prefer a more brothy soup, like a minestrone, skip this step. Stir it all together again, with a generous pinch of salt, allow to boil and add the pasta. Stir every now and then. Taste to check the pasta is done at least two minutes before the packet says it will be. Keep tasting until al dente. Adjust seasoning. Serve warm. Add a little parsley if you like a bit of colour.
Excellent reheated the next day.