Alison’s Lentil and Scampi Salad

I am only too aware that people are often in a hurry when it comes to surfing the net for recipes, so I would like to warn the reader that he or she can safely skip all the preceding paragraphs below until they get to “Ingredients”.   On the other hand, I would also like to recommend this recipe: I think it can be a crowd pleaser on account of its ingredients, its ease of preparation, its relative lack of expense, and most of all on account of the flavour it delivers.


What do you do when your friend of fifteen years tells you that her job requirement now stipulates she be posted to Samoa for a couple of  years? You burst into tears, that’s what.

I had to look up its exact location on a map but I knew of course even without precision that it was far away, far far away from Italy.  Sigh.  Another friend leaving, yet another.

As I wrote in my previous post, Frascati has been home to me ever since I was a child of under two, even though from age five onwards I lived overseas on account of my stepfather’s job.  That meant changing schools: my first in Karachi-Pakistan, second in Teheran-Iran, third in Frascati (albeit for only a couple of months), fourth in Dhaka-Bangladesh (which when I was there was Dacca-East Pakistan) and fifth and final was boarding school in England for an uninterrupted six years.

Growing up abroad provides many enriching experiences and nurtures countless cultural advantages but it also poses one huge disadvantage: you make friends and then either they or you have to ‘leave’ – leave the country.  It’s a funny feeling, that one of being ‘left behind’, it is steeped with melancholy.  And though exciting at some level, being the new person on the block comes with pitfall baggage and requires not a little amount of courage.  Looking on the positive side, I suppose that all of this also teaches one the art of making friendships ‘easily’, of not beating about the bush, and hones one’s radar as to who to reach out to and who, well, it sounds awful but you know what I mean, who to avoid.  Sometimes one can’t ‘avoid’, however … and thereby context and necessity can end up being the parents of close acquaintance.

I met Alison at another friend’s house, over dinner.  Alison’s son and my daughter were in the same class at school and had just hit their teens.  A single mother, she was working for the United Nations in Rome, and I too had worked there.  I took a liking to her straight away, her verve, her sense of humour, her beautiful turn of phrase, her sense of naughtiness, her love of singing and the theatre, her sense of adventure.  It was a delight to discover that she too liked the English magazine “Tatler” although neither of us were to the manner born (no way!).  I liked how she liked to make light of situations and sticky patches.  The daughter of a New Zealand ambassador, she had grown up living abroad all her life but she eschewed any middle-class trappings such an upbringing might have engendered in her outlook.  Entitlement and Alison do not fit in the same phrase and, if anything, she scrunched her nose at even the slightest attitude that smacked of bourgeois bearing.  O Tempora, o Mora! and all that; times and mores do indeed change so who knows what “middle class” and “bourgeois” actually really mean any more but there is no getting away from the fact that most of the friends I have made as an adult here in Rome and Frascati are, well, middle class-ish in many respects, only with an international, expat twist.  It has been either the workplace or our children’s school(s) that have brought us together and what we share, the ‘glue’ of our relationship, is a love of family, of children, of friends and of education.  (I would add pets too … even though I haven’t had a pet in my house since I was a child).  Religion, when it does enter the circle of my friendships, has never caused any nuisance – we come in all sizes of world and religious views.  We are all pretty “vocal’, we like a good gossip, we definitely have firm and even clashing views on occasion – but it all comes out right in the wash in the end.  Does that make us goody goodies?  Are we so easy to “épater” ?  If you prick us, do we not bleed, tee hee …

Well, whatever social demographic we fit into, all I can say is that we have had plenty of lunches and dinners together, so food must also have played its part.   Just days before leaving for Samoa, Alison gave me some food stuffs from the pantry she was vacating that she knew I would appreciate, including some black lentils from the north of Lazio, a region called Tuscia.


I had never heard of black lentils before; black chickpeas (garbanzo) yes, they are called ‘ceci neri’ down in Basilicata and Puglia (here is Gareth Jones on the ceci neri:  By a huge twist of fate, Alison’s departure for Samoa coincided with a visit from three other great friends in common: Debra, who now lives in Hong Kong, Libby from New Hampshire, and Sandy from Vancouver (friends Susy, Liz and I are now the only ones left living in the Frascati area) .  We were able to organize a bon-voyage-good-luck supper for Alison:


Here she is, a little tired after a long day, and with her beautiful dog Lucy at her feet.

But last minute work and preparations meant that she could not join us for a gals get-together weekend on the Amalfi Coast.  We missed you Alison!!!


And we also missed common friend Charlotte from Denmark too, who was to arrive the following week, just in time for a big birthday of mine.


A few days later, I was having some neighbours over for a fish and seafood-themed dinner and looked at those black lentils Alison had given me and came up with an idea.  I ‘borrowed’ a seafood salad recipe idea from Liz, I made use of the frozen fish stock that Sandy had  made in the course of a dinner down on the Amalfi Coast, and made up the rest myself in honour of Alison.  From now, this is going to be called the Alison Lentil and Scampi Salad.   I expect you can get great seafood in Apia, Samoa, Alison? If you can get hold of some ordinary lentils, not even black ones, have a go at making this recipe, I’m sure you’d really enjoy it.  And melted butter in lieu of olive oil, if it’s hard to get there. May your God go with you, Alison, as Dave Allen used to say.



Scampi, fish stock  preferbly made from scampi shells and/or water if fish stock is unavailable, lentils, celery, red onion, olive oil, lemon juice, ice, salt and pepper.



2This was the fish stock Sandy made in  Maiori.  I very wisely froze it and wasn’t going to waste it and took it back to Frascati with me.  Good fish stock is something to be hallowed.


Cut up an onion into bite-size pieces, and chop celery sticks likewise.  Place them all in a bowl full of cold water and ice.  This will make everything nice and crispy and will take the edge off the onion.  I happened to have a red onion called ‘cipolla di Tropea’, which is very very sweet.  Set aside.

4I didn’t know whether these black lentils were going to be too toothsome, so I decided to let them soak in plenty of water for an hour.  Normally, lentils don’t need to be soaked but I didn’t want to risk it.

Then drain the lentils.  Dribble a good amount of olive oil (by olive oil I mean the best evoo you can muster) into your pan.  I opted for an earthenware cooking pan, because they are just super duper for low-heat slow cooking.

7Once the lentils are in, use your hands to make sure they all get coated with the olive oil.

8Then pour in enough of the fish stock to cover the lentils plus another two inches.  Reserve some fish stock to cook the scampi too.

910Bring to a boil, and then reduce the heat.  After a while, some unsightly scum will rise to the surface.  Get rid of it as best you can, a slotted spoon works pretty well.

Taste the lentils after about 20 minutes.  Keep an eye on them.  It turns out that they were just right after 40  minutes cooking time.  Remove from heat.


14Clean out the pan, dry it.  Add plenty more evoo and lots of lemon juice and pinches of salt.

15Put the still-warm lentils into the pot … and stir away so that they get coated in the olive oil and lemon dressing.  Taste, and add more lemon juice or salt as required.  A twist of white pepper might be a good idea too.  Set aside to cool.

16And now we can get on with scampi work.

17Shell them.

18Use some of the fish stock to cook the scampi too.  Bring the stock to a boil, add a pinch of salt, and then put the scampi in to simmer.  They should go from the grey-ish colour above:

19To this pearly white colour in just about two minutes.  Drain straight away.

20Allow to cool.  Once cooled, dribble a tiny amount of olive oil over them.  This recipe is all about ‘coating’ with olive oil.  If you can’t get olive oil, by all means use melted  butter.

2221Drain the onion and celery and add the scampi to the pretty picture.

Then make the salad by combining all the ingredients, using your hands, very gently.

25Do you like the glisten? that’s the olive oil.

26Ready to serve, at room temperature – or even cold if you are somewhere hot.

It was really very very good.  Tasty without being over the top.  I’ve got a thing about pomegranate at the moment.  Can you imagine how pretty this would look with red jewels of pomegranate in it too?

Hunter’s Moon: Quail and Persimmon


This is one of those posts where I ramble and waffle on quite a lot.  If  you think you might be interested in the recipe, you can skip the following paragraphs and go straight to where photos of the recipe begin.

Last Saturday there was a full moon … a big, fat, round, huge sphere and orb of a moon called a Hunter’s moon.  And the word ‘hunter’ in Italian, “cacciatore”, immediately recalls quails to mind for me.  Well, thrushes too.  And ‘beccacce’, woodcock.   And the odd pheasant.  I come from an Italian family of men who liked to go out hunting, indeed had a passion for “andare a caccia” – my grandfather Riccardo who unfortunately died before I was born, his sons Felice and Toto, and Felice’s son Riccardo.  Even my brother-in-law Enrico is a cacciatore.

When my Swedish father died and I was less than one year of age, my mother decided to return to Italy from Sweden, and what ended up happening was that my widowed grandmother and her son Toto (who is only nine years older than I am), and my widowed mother and myself all lived together in the same flat in Frascati while I was growing up.  And this is the flat that I have always called ‘home’ and am still in living in now!

By the time I was five, my mother married again to a Scotsman who lived in West Pakistan and I learnt to speak English there, in Karachi.  Stewart, my stepfather, was in the pharmaceutical business and work was to take him and his family (I have two younger sisters) to Iran, East Pakistan (which then became Bangladesh), the Lebanon, India, and Cyprus and back to the Indian Subcontinent.  At age thirteen, I was sent to boarding school in England and spent six years there completing my education.  This peripatetic existence is the fabric of my psychology, I am sure of that … and there is an expression for people like me now, “third culture kids”.  Only a few days ago, I went to the Swedish Embassy in Rome to renew my passport and for the umpteenth time (think six decades) had to undergo the excruciating embarrassment of owning up to the fact that er, uh, ahem, I actually do not speak Swedish.  Not much, anyway.  It is not something that I am proud of and will have to make good on a promise I made to myself years ago to reach at least a reasonable conversational level.

Anyway, let’s get back to shooting and such. During the course of my early childhood, I have blurred memories of my grandmother sitting in the kitchen of our apartment and painstakingly plucking away at the feathers of the tiniest birds imaginable (thrushes amongst these).  I also remember, later on, when I was older, my Uncle Toto fabricating cartridges for his gun … the gunshot, the powder, the lead (was it lead?) stopper.  He had all the stuff laid out on the kitchen table, all the various ‘ingredients’ carefully measured and then stuffed into the cartridge.  Who knows? I probably even helped him on occasion.  And then, when I was old enough to realise the chronological onus of hunting (getting up at around 3 a.m.), I thought he and my other uncle Felice and other hunting cronies were nuts.  The birds they brought home almost looked like toys, they were that small.  But my grandmother and mother always ooohed and aaahed, and so I just took it for granted I suppose.  Having a gun in the house.  My stepfather had an army background and was a crack shot apparently.  And on those occasions when we spent New Year’s in Italy, I have a pretty clear memory of my Uncle and Stewart firing off a few shots after midnight.  They fired in turns, aiming the gun high up into the sky.  And .. yes .. no one was ever hurt, not ever.  But imagine doing that now, eh!  I shudder just to think about it and yet it seemed harmless enough, and fun, at the time.

Stewart adored quails … and indeed, it was the dish that my grandmother would always make for him upon his return from abroad, and when the season was sound, they were usually accompanied by pan fried porcini mushrooms.  He would start out with the mandatory knife and fork and end up using his fingers to pick away at those little birds until he cleaned the bones of any flesh, taking his time, enjoying every morsel.   I seem to remember my grandmother stuffing them with sausage meat and roasting them in the oven.  I instead cannot lay any claim to quailmanship.  Not really my thing.  I have to thank my friend Liz Macri for reintroducing this fowl on our dining table.  She invited us to dinner just over a year ago and served them and we all thoroughly enjoyed them, and their ‘simplicity’.  She roasted them in the oven, with a little bit of olive oil and salt and pepper, and that was it.

When I espied quails at the butcher’s the day after the Hunter’s moon… I smiled  inwardly, thinking about my Nonna and Stewart, and bought four for me and my husband’s supper that night.  I happened to have a gaudy persimmon  and plopped it into the roasting pan for a bit of colour and for a sweeter ‘take’ on the recipe.  I dotted a few small tomatoes and voilà ! Slice the persimmon and serve the quail with paprika roasted cauliflower.   Not a bad way of coming to terms with Autumn.


Here are the dinky quails.  The butcher hadn’t got rid of all the feathers and I had to do a bit of plucking myself, not the easiest of things and I had to resort to kitchen scissors in the end.


I wrapped some garlic inside a small bayleaf.


And then stuffed the garlic and leaf into the bird’s cavity.


I sprinkled plenty of salt over the birds and coated them, and more bayleaves, with olive oil.  I planced the persimmon in the middle of the oven pan.  I did not use pepper because I think that it is best to add pepper freshly, just before eating, otherwise its fragrance tends to get lost.


I then added some slices of ‘guanciale’ (pork jowl – pancetta would do too) over the opening to the birds’ cavities, a bit like an apron.  These birds have hardly any fat on them and it was an extra precaution as to their maintaining juiciness during the process of cooking.  I added the small tomatoes just for scenic effect.  Now that I think about it, once the birds were cooked I could have dotted the plate with pomegranate.


I roasted them in the oven at 200°C for about an hour and then turned them over for another 15 minutes.


I sliced the persimmon and served the quail with roasted cauliflower.  I had seasoned the cauliflower with olive oil, salt and paprika.


This looks like a mess, doesn’t it.   The photo below is a bit better.  Anyway, looks aside, it tasted really nice.  Not at all aggressive but full of flavour.  Roasted persimmon is very discreet that way.  The bayleaf is fresh.zzzfinal-quail

Jack’s Seafood Pasta

I went to a delicious Vietnamese cooking class the other evening, held at “Latteria Studio” in Trastevere in Rome and conducted by the very gastronomically talented and simpatica Alice Adams, who hails from Melbourne but has lived in Rome since 2005 (  We began with Fresh Rice-Paper Rolls and this entailed soaking the round rice paper sheet into some warm water and placing it on the marble top, easy enough.  Then placing the filling in the middle, again easy enough.  But then we had to wrap the roll – and it was incredibly sticky and gossamer thin and involved a lot of concentration and delicate fingerwork.  “A big fiddly, eh Alice, “ I commented as I looked askance at my work, “My roll looks like a huge suppository gone wrong”.  Then we dealt with pork and lemongrass dumplings – which are very similar to ravioli in looks and, again, a bit on the ‘fiddly’ side to execute.  At which point I was prompted me to comment upon the fact that yet another plus side of Italian food is its relative lack of fiddly components.  It is relatively easy to make a three-course Italian meal in under an hour.

Anyone who has been reading me since I began blogging in September 2010 knows that I tend to eschew ‘fiddly’ not out of dislike for the niceties of top level culinary preparations but on account of the more  mundane reason that I am not the most patient of people.  Funnily enough, back in the days when people used to type on a typewriter and mistakes were corrected with a white polish called ‘tippex’, I was one of those who was surprisingly good at whitewashing the wrong-doing. The whole process was incredibly fiddly and one would think that all that tippexing would have honed my dexterity in the kitchen but no, that is not the case.  I tend to be more like Alexander the Great and look for ease of action these days; if I see a Gordian knot anywhere in the kitchen, I either refrain from making that recipe or else look for a cheat’s way of dealing with it.  But not last night.

My friend Jack likes the classic clam pasta dish called “spaghetti alle vongole” and since yesterday was his last night in Italy before returning to Canada, I thought I’d make it for him.  Sometimes, the devil is in the details that have to do with one’s amour propre  – and I do think that the Vietnamese cooking class the other night sort of goaded me into wanting to cook something more sophisticated, more layered, more finished, in other words: more ‘fiddly’.  I am glad to say that this extra effort paid off, and can immodestly claim that it was bloody good.  Jack was flatteringly approving of this seafood pasta recipe and so I have named it after him.

If you want to try it out, let me tell you what the ingredients are.

Top quality pasta.  The best extra virgin olive oil you can muster.  Fresh clams, mussels and king prawns. An onion, peppercorns, parsley stems and leaves, a small tomato, some chilli for the fish stock/bisque.  Garlic.  Basil leaves and toasted pine nuts for the pesto finish.  Italian breadcrumbs (or panko I suppose will do) to toast just before serving the pasta. Salt and pepper.  Secret ingredient (well, not so secret now): ice cubes.

There are a few steps to be followed.  First the bisque has to be prepared.  The pesto too.  And the breadcrumbs toasted.  The clams and mussels need to be steamed in the bisque and olive oil and garlic, and some of their shells removed.  Finally, the pasta needs to be cooked first in the pot of boiling salted water and then in the pan with all that delicious steamed seafood in it.  Once cooked, the pasta is placed in a nice plate and daubed with the pesto and showered with the toasted breadcrumbs.


Let’s begin!


Here was my choice of top quality pasta – the Mancini brand spaghettoni.2

Venus clams on the left, mussels on the right.  The clams need to soak in salted water (at least 20 minutes) and then shaken about and rinsed a few times to make sure there is no nasty sand lurking about. The mussels need to be cleaned too and trimmed of their hipster beards. In terms of quantity: think 200g per person for the clams and as for the mussels, about 6-8 per person.

Here are the king prawns : in terms of quantity, think two per person. They are king sized after all!


The shells/carapace of the prawns needs to be removed. Place the denuded prawns inside a bowl with some cold water in it, enough water to cover them completely (we don’t want them to dry out).


Place the prawn shells in a pan and turn the heat on.


Avail yourself of a wooden spoon and just ‘stick it’ to those shells – be brutal and thuggish with them.  Mash them up even, because the more you break up their fabric, the more taste will be released.  Apologies for the ‘steamy’ photo but it’s hard to cook and take photos at the same time.


Then switch the heat off and … weird, I know … place some ice cubes into the pan.


Use the wooden spoon in a more gentle fashion now, and swirl those ice cubes around until they fully melt.  The reason for the ice cubes? Apparently, they activate something called ‘thermal shock’ which stops the heat of the cooking temperature in its tracks, and for some chemistry reason that is beyone  my ken enhances the final taste.


Now, at this point, it is time to add some usual suspects … so I have half an onion, a datterino tomato sliced in half (tomatoes add the oft-required acidity to any dish), parsley stems and peppercorns (they are there but are hiding in this photo).


Add water. Enough water to cover all the ingredients and then about another 3 inches on top of that.


Turn the heat on and cook for 10 minutes with a lid on.  Then remove the lid and cook the liquid down for about another 10-12 minutes over a medium flame.


Strain all the ingredients and you end up with this fishy tasting water known as bisque.  Throw away the shells now but keep the precious bisque, put it in a saucepan which is large enough to contain all the pasta, and place it in a safe place for now.


Toast the pine kernels/nuts, and be careful to do so over a gentle flame – they burn in no time! Remove from the pan and allow to cool.


Then place a large bunch of fresh basil leaves in a bowl, pour a good amount of olive oil over them, add a pinch of salt and a twist of pepper, as well as the toasted pine nuts, and using an immersion blender, magically turn everything into a ghoulish green paste very similar to a pesto.  Taste and add more salt and pepper if required.


Put a tablespoon per pasta serving (think of one serving as 100g of pasta) of breadcrumbs into a non-stick pan.  Dribble olive oil à la Jackson Pollock over it.  And cook over a low heat for a minute or so, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon.  Remove from heat and set aside.

So, at this point: we have made the bisque.  We have made the green basil sauce (pesto). And we have prepared the toasted breadcrumbs.  We are on a roll. Which reminds me, put the pasta water onto boil.  Now is the time. Put a lid on the pan, it boils quicker that way.


Use as much or as little garlic per person to season the olive oil (at least one tablespoon per serving, and I would recommend even slightly more).  Add some chilli (again as little or as much as you like) to the pan with the olive oil in it.  Turn on the heat and cook the garlic (maker sure it doesn’t burn).  It is surprising how much garlic is required to make this dish taste good.  Normally, for other recipes, I would use less … but for this recipe, I used two cloves per person, and sliced them lengthwise in half.


Pour this into the big pan.

Time to steam the mussels, clams and prawns.



Place them in the big pan, cover with a lid and cook until they steam open (only a few minutes).


When they have, remove the lid and add a fistful of parsley leaves.


Once the pasta has reached a rolling boil, salt it, and add the pasta. Fiddly Factor: You are going to cook the pasta for only HALF the time recommended on the packet.  You will finish off cooking the pasta in the large pan with the seafood in it.

And  so now the tempo charges up.  This  is when one has to keep one’s wits about one’s person and can’t be interrupted bar any emergency.


Looking good and smelling divine but we need to remove some of the shells.  Asbestos fingers are required for this job, beware: the shells are indeed hot.


These can be thrown away now.


And this soupy beauty is what we are left with. Turn the heat on now  (a strong flame) and …


Add the half-cooked pasta. Now is the time to stir.



26A vigorous stirring of the pasta, until it soaks up all the liquid, and Jack’s the man for the job.  It might even be that the pasta is still too ‘al dente’ by the time it has absorbed all the liquid: in which case add a ladleful of the cooking water.27

Transfer the now cooked pasta into a serving dish.  And sprinkle the toasted breadcrumbs over it.


Place the prawns where they can be seen, on top of the pasta.  Create a circle and add a daub of the green sauce in the middle.


And enjoy!



Buon appetito!

Always a pleasure to cook for you Jack.  Alla prossima.



60 is 20 times 3



My cup runneth over … literally.  I have been drinking more wine during the last ten days or so on a daily basis than I have since the last time I was spending time with a group of friends and/or family for a few days in a row (which happened to be last August).  I live for get-togethers and I do love to cook and eat well, eat good food.  It doesn’t have to be complicated but it does have to be good.  I am known for having shed a tear when a highly awaited dish proved to be direly disappointing. I very rarely drink at lunch time because it makes me sleepy afterwards and my energy levels tend to take a dip in the afternoon anyway.  Come dusk or soon after, however, and I have an appointment with “wine o’clock”, a time of day that varies with the seasons, sooner in Winter and naturally later in Summer.  In either case, if I don’t have a yearning for a glass of wine by 8 p.m., I begin to worry about whether I am coming down with something.  A fairly long time ago now, I accompanied a group of girl scouts on a camping trip and was able to forgo wine for those three days sans problème and that experience reassured me that I wasn’t a lush.  There have since been similar other occasions, admittedly not many, when for whatever reason I had to do without and was absolutely fine with it.   I know of a few people who do not enjoy wine at all (a lot of my Italian girlfriends for instance), or who alter their temperament in a dispiriting way (“j’ai le vin triste” was the lament of one of my friends who was otherwise not at all a cheerless person), and some get contentious, confrontational or even aggressive after drinking more wine than they can handle.  Me? I talk.  And talk and talk and talk.  And save the world.  And look at the greater scheme of things.  And come up with brilliant ideas that I promptly forget the day after.  And tell people how much I love them or appreciate what they have done for me, even though they know full well and I’ve told them countless times before.  And after talk, talk and more talk, if I have drunk more than my quotidian usual, I just fall asleep, the Latin god of sleep Somnus comes to fetch me, we’re pals.  Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams, sometimes has a heyday (heynight?) with me and the next day when I wake up there are not a few questions coursing through my mind before I get on with the day.

Mostly, however, and here is the point of this oenologically imbued preamble, wine makes me feel good, takes the sting out of a long working day or lessens the hold of an ongoing worrisome problem, and opens up my mind to the probing question of what makes life worthwhile.

There is much talk of self medication these days and many would consider the quaffing of wine or other alcoholic drinks along those lines.  All I know is that so far as my own mind-body-soul connexion  is concerned, a glass of wine makes Socrates’s dictum “the unexamined life is not worth living” (here it is in ancient Greek if you can read it:  ἀνεξέταστος βίος οὐ βιωτὸς ἀνθρώπῳ) very much smoother to embrace.  Here is some enlightenment straight out of Wikipedia: “Socrates believed that philosophy – the love of wisdom – was the most important pursuit above all else. For some, he exemplifies more than anyone else in history the pursuit of wisdom through questioning and logical argument, by examining and by thinking. His ‘examination’ of life in this way spilled out into the lives of others, such that they began their own ‘examination’ of life, even though Socrates himself had lost his. Socrates was saying that a life without philosophy – an ‘unexamined’ life – was not worth living.”

Some examine life through vocation, religion, work, sport, meditation, art, music, physically challenging adventure, travel … there is no cut and dried rule and no one of these necessarily negates another.  I find it pleasant and meaningful to undertake all this examining stuff around a meal, that’s all.  A meal with a friend, a lover, a husband, a family member, a new acquaintance. It’s one of my ways of feeling ‘alive’ as opposed to merely existing.

It’s one of the reasons I started my first blog (  Yes, the idea behind the blog was that it was supposed to serve as a marketing tool to entice people to want to come and do a cooking class with me in Rome (or in Frascati which is near Rome) but at the time I had one child abroad at university and another child who was going to go to uni in London too the following year.  I nearly always had my children in mind as I wrote those posts, it was my way of extending the concept of ‘home’ to them at a stage in their lives when they were getting to grips with leaving home and my husband and I with the metamorphosis of the family nest.  I also nearly always had one or another friend in mind, hoping that he or she would enjoy my post in lieu of a letter, an email or a phone call.

Writing posts can be very difficult, I don’t think many people realize this, it requires a right ‘frame of mind’ – well, it does for me at least.  I shop for food and cook nearly every day of the week and don’t find that a ‘problem’, and it only turns into a chore when I’m in too much of a hurry or when I have too many other things to do.  Writing about it all, however, takes mindfulness as well as practical considerations and time.  And when life gets in the way, the will to write posts dwindles however stalwarth the desire to keep up.

I like my posts to reflect good cheer … I quote the following proverb on my About page: “He that is of a merry heart hath a continual feast (Proverbs 15:15)”.

But sometimes life stinks.

Disease needs to be dealt with and surgical operations have to be undergone.  My friend and inimitable fellow blogger Gareth Jones ( died unexpectedly last July as did my adored whimsical Uncle James from cancer.  My other one-of-a-kind friend, the exuberantly studious, funky historian and lover of life author Alan Epstein ( also died earlier this year.  Work situations change, and income and all that that entails becomes an issue.  Living standards and expenditures have to be tweaked.  A lot of time needs to be spent seeking work.  Relationships have to contend with the resulting tension and dearth of quality time.  Energy levels waver. Tempers fray. Depressing thoughts have to be fought off.  Routine? There is no routine, it’s all very challenging, it’s not easy to figure out.  My mother was hospitalized on the day my husband and I were celebrating our 30th wedding anniversary last June.  She ended up having to have an operation to remove a haematoma from her brain in July and stayed with us after being discharged until September 1st.  This is Agnese, or Agnesina as she likes to be called.  I have written about her indominatable character in a couple of my posts ( and it was just awful to watch her have to go through it all; imagine my state of mind when I was asked to sign the release certificate for the operation where the first possible outcome read “death”.  Not nice. My sisters rushed over from the UK.  We didn’t know whether she would  make it, she will be 90 in December.  But make it she did, and taught us an incredible lesson in physical bravery, stoicism and the will to live.  The best outcome was the shower of love she was bathed in, stemming not just from we three daughters and her brother  but from friends and relatives everywhere.  She was incredibly touched and moved and it was beautiful to behold.  The whole experience (about six weeks in all) got in the way of our summer holiday and I had a long and difficult translation to do, and the fridge broke down twice, and the dishwasher too, and then cherry on the cake so did the washing machine: we got a new one installed just the other day … we spent very little time comparatively speaking in the rented house near the seashore at Sabaudia and we had to keep an eye on my mother all day long basically.  But there were also visitors, my niece and nephew, and friends from decades ago.  Fun, logistical chaos, get togethers, much talk, good food, plenty of wine, incredible bonding. Two beautiful weddings. One day at a time …

So yes, put it this way, I have been doing a helluva lot of ‘examining’ these past five years, these past six months.  And, perhaps desultorily, not surprisingly, without any claim to a wow factor, all I can say is that it is love that makes life worthwhile.  Love of children, family, friends, husbands and wives, colleagues, neighbours, strangers, pets.  I woke up this morning fully refreshed after a lovely dinner last night with some of my neighbours.  Tonight there will be  a party in Rome at my brother-in-law’s restaurant with mostly Italian friends and family.  And tomorrow there will be a party held in my honour, again in Rome, hosted by friends who are visiting from Canada … and the list is mostly comprised of other non-Italian friends who used to live here and who like to return as often as they can.  Yesterday I was 59.8 years of age, tonight I shall be 59.9 and tomorrow I shall be hitting my sixth decade.

I awoke full of gratitude this morning.  My cup overfloweth.  A bit tired but lots of cheer coming to the fore.  I still have the kitchen to tidy up and clothes to hang out to dry.  Phone calls to make.  Cake to pick up.  Emails to write.  I went to a catholic boarding school in England and there used to be a hymn that we all adored, “The Lord is my Shepherd”, the Henry Smart musical version.  I could never hit the high note but never mind.  I am no longer a catholic but that does not prevent me from appreciating music and words that move one.  And I think that one can experience love and gratefulness as a Hindu, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Jew, a Christian, an Atheist.  This was the purpose of my blog post this morning.

If you are inclined, do listen to it … – I like the line “I will not by evil be ever dismayed”.  There is  much to be dismayed about in the world and we all have to do something to keep up and forward some good news!

Dedicated to Sarah Terzeon, Jenny Clark, Maggy and Glyn and Penny Averill in the UK, Alison in Samoa, Romina in Pakistan, Charlotte in Denmark, Debra in Hong Kong, Rosheen, Phyllis and Sandy in Canada, Diane, Judy, Kim, Elatia, Libby and Alanna in the USA, Jonell in Venice, Rachel, Maggs, Susy, Liz, Michelle, Victoria, Carmen, Judith Rose, Elisabeth, Carmen and Meera mostly here in Rome, Leanne sometimes in Rome, Marion, Tanya, Sally, Maeve, Frances and Pam from boarding school days, Aniko and Szuszanna in Hungary, my lovely family in Sweden, my husband’s cousins Gina, Gina and Gina in the USA, and my fantastic sisters J and J … I know you are the ones who read me the most.



Fake Fish and Any Excuse for Burrata

IMG_7008 IMG_7009Judy Witts Francini put up a photo on Instagram yesterday of a dish called ‘pesce finto’, meaning ‘fake fish’.  I am not sure it’s the sort of recipe that would appeal to people outside Italy.  Which is a shame because I, and Judy evidently too, think it is quite delicious, not to mention easy to prepare.  Basically it is tinned tuna and mashed potatoes … both usually a staple in any home.

I wrote a post about it a few years ago which I don’t mind reposting.  The recipe is my tweak on this recipe which also includes burrata – and so many people I know adore burrata:

I hope you enjoy reading about this Italian nursery food comfort dish.  Who knows, you might even be prompted to try it out.

Denuding a Misapprehension – Egg to the Rescue when it comes to Gnudi

GNUDII think that today is the first Sunday in many many weeks that I have not had to hurry, to get on with things, or to travel.  I even managed to read a few online newspaper articles just now and it almost felt like being on holiday.  One of them, however, pricked by nose-scrunching, eyebrow raising, er dunno? what’s this all about? sentiments.  An article by Nigel Slater on how to make gnudi and why they should repose in the chill of a fridge for at least 24 hours before being cooked :(  I am not a gnudi expert (seek out Judy Witts Francini instead) but something atavistically Italian in me prompted me to question the wisdom of devising a recipe that requires refrigeration when said recipe was probably being cooked, and frequently so, even before fridges were a staple appliance in homes.  Does Nigel Slater have anything against eggs, one wonders?  Add eggs to the ricotta mix and you have no need for tampering with cold temperatures and can enjoy your gnudi in next to no time. None of this delayed gratification nonsense!

Here is a link to a gnudi recipe I wrote a few years ago and Buona Domenica to you all.

Vignarola – The Pilgrimage of Posh

The venerable vegetable stew known as Vignarola.  I have written about it before, yes I have.  I was prompted to do so again (vignarola mania?) because in today’s recipe I went to the added trouble of removing the outer sheath of the broad beans, an excercise in ‘poshifying’ the dish as it were, hence the title.
IMG_4701Simple ingredients, very grand finale.  I don’t know how many of you will go to the trouble of actually making a vignorala.  It is not at all difficult but it does take time.  I have tried to present the recipe to make it as time-friendly as possible.


Two artichokes, preferably the Roman kind that are at their prime in this season (Spring).

Fresh peas

Fresh broadbeans /fava beans

Spring onions


Pancetta or guanciale – or neither if you are a vegetarian

Olive oil (evoo), salt and pepper

Fresh mint leaves

Let’s take a look at the ingredients.  I have placed them on the same plate so that you can get an idea of the proportions   Roughly speaking, one needs the same amount of all the vegetables

1What you see on this plate are two trimmed and sliced artichokes.
2 These are fresh peas.3 Here are the fresh broadbeans / fava beans.4 Here are the spring onions and the lettuce.5 On the far north of this photo is the guanciale, the pork jowl. In the middle of the photo is a ceramic decorative object known as a ‘pumo’.  It comes from Puglia and it is symbolic of good luck and the augury of all good things to come.  I stuck it in the middle of the plates because I associate the colour green with Spring and with the making of the green vignarola vegetables: artichokes, peas and broadbeans.7It is traditional to also add mint to the vignarola stew … here is some ordinary mint from a plant on my balcony.
8 This instead (again on my balcony) is the mint called ‘mentuccia romana’ … and pennyroyal in English.  Even my herbs have to be ‘royal’, you see, ha ha ha!  Mentuccia romana is the mint that is used to stuff braised artichokes in the recipe called ‘carciofi alla romana’.  I decided to use both kinds. And now on with the :



Here is the guanciale thickly sliced into a matchstick shape.
10 The roughly chopped spring onions …11 Bring a pan of water to the boil and add the broadbeans …
13Simmer the broadbeans for about 2 minutes, then drain and place in a bowl of iced or at least very cold water to cool them down.  Then arm yourself with a good deal of patience … or better still, find someone else to step in and help you … and get on with the job of removing the skin of the broadbeans.  One by one … Oh yes … it takes ages.

1Trim the artichokes.  This means removing the outer petals  of the globe; and then quarter each artichoke, and quarter again : i.e. cut into 8 pieces.  Once cut, the artichokes must immediately be placed in a bowl of water to avoid the oxygen in the air turning them black.  Every single recipe I have come across calls for lemon juice to be added to the water, and lemony water is what I always used too.   But I found out only recently that it actually isn’t necessary at all – the water is quite sufficient.  And now that we have everything in place … we can get cracking.

Step 1: Cooking the peas
14Dribble a generous amount of olive oil into a frying pan. I have a penchant for pepper corns and tinker them into nearly all my recipes.  Here, I put six pepper corns into the pan.  You may wish to avoid them altogether – you decide.
16 Turn on the heat, and put the peas in the pan.  Add one teaspoon of sugar.17 Add one teaspoon of salt over the sugar.18 Pour boiling water into the pan. Plenty of it … enough to cover the peas by 2 cm (an inch or so).19 Simmer until the peas are tender.  It took the better part of 20 minutes to cook these.  Peas done. Turn off heat, set aside.

Step 2:  Cooking the Guanciale19a 20 Use another frying pan to render the fat of the guanciale over a medium heat.  This takes about 2-3 minutes.21 Once the guanciale has crispened up a bit, add some olive oil.22 23 Now add the spring onions.  Cook for only a couple of minutes.

Step 3: Cooking the Artichokes

24 Now add the artichokes.  Cook for about 2-3 minutes …25 Remember the peas?  See how much cooking water there was? a kind of pea soup?

26Pour some of the pea soup using a sieve into the frying pan.
27 Keep cooking … the artichokes will need this liquid to become tender.28 The flame is quite high.30 Keep adding the pea soup, as required.31 When the artichokes are tender (push a fork through one of them to find out when) … it should take about 10 minutes or so from start to finish …32 Add the cooked peas.  Turn the heat down now.

Step 4: Wilting the lettuce

33 Put the lettuce where the peas had been (please notice I used up all the pea soup) bar a tiny amount.34 Cover with a lid and cook for about 1 minute.35Remove lid and add them to the big saucepan with the artichokes and peas.

Step 5: Bringing all the Pieces Together
36 Remember these?  Add the broadbeans to the big saucepan and use a wooden spoon to gently combine all the ingredients, cooking them for another couple of minutes.37 The two kinds of mint …38 Add the mint and then swirl some more olive oil over the vignarola. It is now ready to be served.39 40

The vignarola is best served at room temperature, not hot.  The heat tarnishes the taste somewhat.  As with many a stew, vignarola tastes even better the following day.

IMG_4702And as you can see, a posh, indeed regal, vignarola … can never be ‘dry’. And don’t forget the bread … to mop up the sauce afterwards.

The making of a vignarola is a kind of culinary pilgrimage, it must adhere to season and month when these vegetables pop up all together – April.  And so one harkens to Chaucer and to his Canterbury Tales and to the ‘pull’ of pilgrimages that this month sparks off.  What is tugging at your soul this Spring?

Buona primavera everyone!

Here is the start of the Prologue, in old English, a modern version follows …

1: Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
2: The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
3: And bathed every veyne in swich licour
4: Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
5: Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
6: Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
7: Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
8: Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
9: And smale foweles maken melodye,
10: That slepen al the nyght with open ye
11: (so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
12: Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,

Translation into Modern English:

When April with his showers sweet with fruit
The drought of March has pierced unto the root
And bathed each vein with liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower;
When Zephyr also has, with his sweet breath,
Quickened again, in every holt and heath,
The tender shoots and buds, and the young sun
Into the Ram one half his course has run,
And many little birds make melody
That sleep through all the night with open eye
(So Nature pricks them on to ramp and rage)-
Then do folk long to go on pilgrimage …

pumiBecause … two pumi are better than one.