Cauliflower à l’Ancienne

“Mr Atlee is a very modest man,” said Churchill once of his political opponent in a parliamentary debate,  and paused before uttering “and he has every reason to be modest”.  This is how I feel about cauliflower.  Everyone gets so excited and raves about it and turns it into cus cus or rice and roasts it like meat and adds sauces and accoutrements and 101 spices and other veggies to turn it into a salad.  Which proves my point.  It’s hard to ‘do’ cauliflower without bolstering it with other helpful ingredients.  Cauliflower on its own is ‘modest’ in the Churchillian sense.

I had bought some cauliflower the other day with the intention of roasting it and serving it with an almond and anchovy sauce.  By the time I got around to preparing dinner last night, however, it was past half past eight and realised roasting was out of the question.  So I simmered the florets for a little bit and then cooked them à l’ancienne, i.e. the old fashioned way.  No fuss.

Butter and extra virgin olive oil in a saucepan, a pinch of paprika, slithers of garlic.  Salt and pepper.0

Cook the cauliflower over a fairly high heat.  Add a bit of white wine and let it evaporate its alcohol content.

1Switch off the heat and add some fresh tarragon.



3A modest effort with a not-so-modest result, huh?

September Blues and Consolatory Crepes

The weather changed yesterday.  It rained quite a lot very early this morning.

On the one hand we are glad that it has rained, this was very much a drought of a summer in most of Italy and here in Rome it hadn’t rained since May! Weirdly, I wouldn’t mind so much if it were raining in August but September is not the month for me.  Reminds of when I had to go back to school and of three very dear family members who all passed away in September.  There is that insidiuous feeling that the best part of the year is over (long days, warm weather, flights of fancy) and it’s pretty hard to imagine that the cold and Winter are something to look forward to, sigh.

Respite came from clever daughter who is staying with us: “Why don’t we make pancakes?” she asked. Why not indeed … Comfort food all year round ! Here is my tale of how to make the peerless pancake, you will forgive me if I revive a blog post I wrote a few years ago:


Cor, Courgettes! (Seriously?) How to Make a Tasty Pasta Sauce with the Boring Kind of Courgettes

Definition of “Cor”:

British informal 

  • Expressing surprise, excitement, admiration, or alarm.

    ‘Cor! That’s a beautiful black eye you’ve got!’


A slang word used by the British, often as employed by those with a cockney accent. Meaning God. (Possibly “god damn” as “cor blimey” is believed to be derives from “god, blind me.”)

“Cor, wot a bloody wanker you are.”

Translation: “God, what a fucking jerkoff.”
or “God damn, you’re a wack job.”

End of quotes.

Last week, we were spending some time with my husband’s parents in a small hilltop and very beautiful town in the Marche called Monterubbiano.  My mother-in-law was born and raised there and my father-in-law ended up buying a summer house smack in the middle of town, underneath the tall tower of San Francesco, when he retired.  Many are the summer holidays we spent in Monterubbiano with our young kids, until they grew up and it became no longer ‘cool’ for them.  The town’s population gets smaller and smaller with each passing year and many shops closed as a consequence.  There is no longer a butcher, and last Winter even the pasta maker closed.  This was quite a blow to us because we also loved their olive all’ascolana, their creme and the town’s famous tagliatelle fritte.  All that remains is a well stocked, family-run grocery store, a small supermarket if you will, and a tiny fruit and veg shop.  For some reason, I decided I would make pasta with courgettes for lunch that day and asked my father-in-law to pop out and get me some.  “Please, the light green ones if they have them.  Otherwise the dark ones will do”.  When he returned with the dark green ‘hospital’ zucchine I can’t say I was too surprised.  And so all that was left for me to do was engage in Operation Courgette-Tart-Up.  I had a secret up my sleeve: guanciale. That and a few other small ‘tricks’.  Little details can make all the difference in a dish.
Ingredients: extra virgin olive oil, garlic, diced guanciale/pork jowl (pancetta will do), garlic, courgettes, tomato paste, fresh basil leaves, parsley, parmesan, a blob of butter, salt and pepper.
I began by putting some water on the boil in a medium-sized saucepan.  When the water came to the boil, I added two courgettes and left them, covered, to simmer.  I needed them to be thoroughly cooked through.  I was going to mash them into a purée later on.
In another wok-kind of pan, I put some extra virgin olive oil to heat up and welcome some cloves of garlic.   When the cloves turned golden, I transferred them.  Sorry, I forgot to take a photo of the garlic in this pan.



See?  Courgette chips.


And this is the white and utterly boring part of the courgette that I would normally throw away.

7Instead, genius idea aha!, I added them to the water cooking the whole courgettes.  They would serve to flavour the water.  This water could then be used to make a vegetable soup.  Waste not, want not.


Back to the wok-pan.  I added some more evoo, a tiny bit of red chilli and the courgette chips that I had cut into dices.  Well, when I say ‘dices’ I mean what you see above.  Do sprinkle quite a bit of salt at this point.

9Operation tart up was coming along nicely now.  The pasta water at the back, to the right, being brought to the boil.  Diced courgette chips being sautéd over a high heat in the middle.  The crisp guanciale to the right.  And the courgettes simmering to the left at the back.

10I squeezed some tomato paste (concentrato di pomodoro) into a mixing bowl.  Tomato paste is all about umami and reinforcement of ‘other’ flavours, and I tend to use it rather a lot.  Think of it as a team builder.

11The simmered courgettes.  Thoroughly  mushy at this point.

12A little of their cooking water.

13All mashed up.  And not looking very attractive either but never mind, we’ll fix that later.  Add a pinch of salt, taste, make sure it tastes okay and then set aside.

14Now that the pasta water started boiling, and I added the coarse see salt as well as the pasta, things can start coming together in the wok pan.  At 12 o’clock we have the courgette purée, with a blob of butter that will soon melt added to it, at 3 o’clock a chiffonade of fresh basil leaves as well as parsley, at 6 o’clock we have the guanciale and, finally, at 9 o’clock we have the sautéed diced courgettes.  Turn the heat up high. Combine all the ingredients.  Freshly milled black pepper, if you like.  I like.

16Drain the pasta directly into the wok pan.  Keep the heat high.

17Toss the pasta if you are able to or use two wooden spoons to combine all the ingredients.

15Add some of the pasta water to the pasta.  One or two ladlefuls.

18Grated parmigiano reggiano.

19Sprinkle the parmigiano liberally and keep stirring with the wooden spoon and adding water as required.

20Almost ready.

21Ready.  Ready to be served.  And enjoyed of course!  Why else bother …


Loosey Goosey Mozzarella Topping for Fried Aubergine Slices

The queen of summer dishes is the Parmigiana di Melanzane, of course.  Slices of aubergine fried in olive oil and then baked in the oven with mozzarella, basil, parmesan and a tomato sauce.  It is, however, a dish that requires an attitude of reverence and plenty of time for its production.  One evening a few weeks ago, I decided I would settle for an aubergine recipe that would use the same ingredients basically but at the same time offer the bonus of taking less than an hour to prepare.

I also decided to go for this recipe because … the aubergines and tomatoes I had to hand weren’t exactly the best quality.  I am a bit of a bore when it comes to where to do one’s food shopping and I have been avoiding/boycotting supermarkets for many years now, ever since I read the book by Felicity Lawrence “Not on the Label”, circa 2005/6/7 … can’t remember exactly which year.  I realise I am at risk of coming across as a terrible snob, with supercilious standards, especially with regard to people who go to supermarkets for reasons of economy.  So I hasten to add that Frascati, which is where I live, is a very short distance to many markets: our own Frascati covered market open Monday to Saturday and a Slow Food Market every Saturday morning, both of which I can reach on foot; then there are farmers markets in the area (Ariccia), and weekly markets (Grottaferrata on Mondays, Cocciano on Wednesdays), as well as a couple of farms (Capodaraco in Grottaferrata and Iacchelli not far from Nemi). And not only do the prices of their wares compete very favourably with supermarket prices but … their produce is infinitely better on the whole, it really is, no contest! I am nearly always disappointed when I buy veg from a supermarket.  Which fortunately does not happen very often.

Anyway, it just so happened that I had some dodgy looking aubergines and tomatoes sourced from, you guessed it, the supermarket.  Their look wasn’t exactly a come-hither one and the only answer for me to such a strait (that perhaps only I deem to be dire) was to go down the tasty camouflage route, i.e. to take recourse to frying.  As they say in Italian, even the sole of a shoe would taste good if it were fried.


Aubergines, tomatoes, basil leaves, breadcrumbs, eggs, mozzarella, good quality extra virgin olive oil, oil for frying (either olive oil or groundnut/peanut oil).  Salt.


The first thing to do is rip the mozzarella and put it in a sieve or colander so as to dry it up a little, remove the excess of its liquid.

1These tomatoes looked pretty enough but … their taste left a lot to be desired. I had a little bit of tweaking to do in order to amp up their flavour.  Cut the tomatoes in half, and then half again, place in another colander and allow them to drip away.

2And here is the prepping station.  Some beaten eggs in one plate.  Some breadcrumbs in another.  The unprepossessing aubergines.  I peeled them, cut them into fairly thick round slices.  I then coated them with the egg wash before breading them on both sides.

3Be sure to press quite hard.  Fingers get to be incredibly sticky and require frequent rinsing (especially if the phone rings – now why is it that the phone tends to always ring or the neighbour call in when I am in the process of frying food?  Maybe the anti-frying police is after me.).

4Off I went and shallow fried the aubergine slices.  Turning them over only once.  I removed them with a slotted spoon and set them over a plate with kitchen paper to welcome any unwanted oiliness.

6And now back to the mozzarella rags.  I put them in the food processor with a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil.  I used the pulse feature to process them. I seem to remember adding 1 tablespoon of very cold water, to ‘loosen’ the mozzarella as it were.

7I stopped the blitzing and tasted the mozzarella.

8I decided it required a little more olive oil.  A good sprinkle of salt and white pepper and some fresh basil leaves.  A little more blitzing and it was done.

9And here, dear reader, is my loosey goosey mozzarella topping: easy peasy!

It was time to put the ingredients together and serve the dish.

1011I added a little dribble of olive oil to the tomatoes as well as a tiny sprinkle of salt (sea salt, always sea salt).

On the platter.

1314And for all my lamenting and decrying over the quality of the aubergines and tomatoes, this recipe turned out to be very good indeed.  All of the aubergine slices got wolfed down and a sense of summer satiety obtained at the dinner table.  Frying can work miracles, I tell you.

Potato Cake when Diets and Blood Thinners Challenge the Menu one can Enjoy

During the past few years I have occasionally given private, mostly individual English lessons that are all about the person in question, wholly tailor made to fit in with their level of comprehension of the language and, almost as important, their character, their personality, and age.  Anyone grappling with the challenge of learning a new language nearly always suffers from the excruciating pain of looking foolish, I find, and the result is that even outgoing people end up being on the shy side.  It is important that I succeed in getting them to overcome this hurdle, how else otherwise will they be able to make any inroads?  I often take recourse to songs and nursery rhymes, the sillier the better.  People feel okay about ‘repeating’ the words of a song or a ditty because it somehow shields them from exposing their tender language-impaired ‘self’.   And if there is a little laughter or a chuckle to be gained thereby, all the better.  Nothing like a little sense of humour to shake things up a bit, it can do so much to encourage a little courage.

A good song is “O dear, what can the matter be? Three old ladies locked in the lavatory”, etc.  The first verse is fine but things get very complicated, vocabulary wise, after that.  I will introduce it only when we have reached a certain level of understanding.  Much easier to begin with the famous, or infamous if you will, baked beans song.  You know the one, don’t you?

Beans, beans, they’re good for your heart
The more you eat, the more you fart
The more you fart, the better you feel
So eat baked beans with every meal.

I heard the song for the first time when I went to boarding school in England where I learned that flatulence enjoyed pride of place in giggledom.  Farts, and bathroom jokes, I soon discovered were the origin of much hilarity.  So noblesse oblige, I joined in and even participated in a farting competition in my dormitory one night.  I hasten to add that I soon outgrew any fascination for the subject or its physical expression anywhere near my presence.  In one dictionary I looked up the word ‘fart’ in at the time the explanation was quite mind boggling: “a slight explosion between the legs”.  I have a lot of respect for the workings of a healthy body, and any unwanted air must of course be allowed to escape, bar the risk of it rumbling uncomfortably inside the body. That is what I informed my children when they were young.  That said, the bathroom was the best place for its evacuation unless extreme conditions obtained, in which case it would be a good idea to excuse oneself.  I realised that it was a fine line between presenting the act of farting as a ‘normal’ bodily function and casting a socially shameful light on it.

Why preface a post with all this talk of flatulence, you might well ask?  Well, the reason is actually quite a bittersweet one. My mother had to undergo surgery on her brain last summer to get rid of a haematoma.  Considering her age, almost 90 at the time, she came through it all with flying colours.  The doctors suggested she stay off blood thinners for a while, and all was well until a few months ago, when she began to suffer from very strong atrial fibrillation.  After much to-ing and fro-ing with the cardiologist and blood tests etc, it was decided that she should be put on blood thinnners,  the Coumadin anticoagulant also known as Warfarin, to avoid the risk of a stroke.

Aged 90 plus now, she passed her yearly driving test on the Monday, and was told by the cardiologist not to drive on the Tuesday.  That didn’t go down well with her and she started driving again as soon as her fibrillations abated.  Not that she drives any long distance, bless her, basically only within a 3-5 km radius, but being able to drive is what keeps her ticking.


Here is my mother, Agnese, a couple of Sundays ago.  At a garden party lunch.

Another thing that keeps her ticking is cooking.  My love of food and cooking has most certainly come from her, and a lot of our conversations over the phone are all about recipes or ideas for a recipe or talk of what she found at the market.  So imagine telling someone like her that they have to restrict their “healthy” food intake.  Crestfallen by the appalling implications of this bloody Coumadin stuff, I told the second cardiologist that to me it sounded like a death knell for her.  Thankfully, he was very sympathetic.  And, indeed, hopefully within the next ten days she will be put on another kind of anticoagulant medication that does not interfere with the diet and does not require periodic blood tests.  Phew.

Please take a look at what she must avoid until then.


Let me translate for you.


Broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, spinach, lettuce, radicchio, turnips, artichokes, any dark green leafy vegetable


Liver, pork, bacon, eggs, butter

Green tea

ALLOWED  ONLY IN VERY SMALL QUANTITIES – LESS THAN 100G PER DAY (that’s just about a piddly 3 ounces !)

Chicory, asparagus, endive, bell peppers, aubergines, mushrooms, courgettes, collards, fennel, tomatoes, carrots

Tuna/tunny fish

Fresh beans, fresh peas



“Drinking grapefruit juice, cranberry juice, and alcohol during treatment with warfarin / coumadin can increase your risk of bleeding.”  “Steer clear of green apples and prunes.” In one of the websites I researched on the subject, even extra virgin olive oil was supposed to be eschewed save for a dribble.  In other words, with Coumadin we are basically being told NOT to eat a Mediterranean diet, the one that is now proven to be so good for us!  How do you think my mother got to celebrate her 90th birthday?

I felt very badly for my mother and when she came over for supper day before yesterday, I wanted to cook something that would seem ‘normal’ and not smack of that dreaded word ‘obligatory’.   ‘Choice’ is such a pleasing sounding word, isn’t it.  At first I thought I might do something with beans, not the proscribed fresh ones but the ordinary cooked kind.  My mother doesn’t like chicken much, the only meat she really enjoys now is pork for some reason but of course she isn’t allowed that, it wasn’t a fish day, she wasn’t allowed eggs … ouff! … so beans sounded like a good kind of protein.  Except that I then thought of the beans’ ‘explosive’ consequences … and that’s how I came up with the idea of the recipe for a potato cake drowned in a cream and pecorino sauce.  I take no credit for the recipe, I saw it on a television programme recently.


Boiled and mashed potato, onion, olive oil (EVOO), tomato sauce (passata), cream (as in full fat whipping cream), grated pecorino cheese, basil (the original recipe called for fresh mint leaves but my mother is not overly fond of mint)



Boil the potatoes (in my case it was only 1 large potato), mash, allow to cool and set aside.

Slice or chop the onion and sweat it with some olive oil in a saucepan.  Then add the tomato sauce, some salt and a teensy pinch of sugar.  Cook for about 10-15 minutes, adding fresh basil leaves a few minutes before the end of the cooking time. Taste and season again if needed.



Now, add the mashed potatoes and gently combine with the tomato sauce.


It doesn’t take long to combine all the ingredients nicely, over a low heat.

5Use two spoons or a wooden spoon to shape the potato mix in to a round ‘cake’ shape. Continue cooking until you think one side has been nicely ‘done’.  Then, using a plate, flip the potato cake and slide it back into the pan.

6The potato cake can now cook on the other side.

7Grated pecorino.

8Pour some cream into a small saucepan and add some nutmeg (my idea) and the cheese. Cook until the cheese has melted.  At this point, I switched everything off and decided to make my mother a good old-fashioned tomato bruschetta.

9It was that beautiful time of day, when one can enjoy a glass of wine and contemplate the cinematic performance of a Summer sunset.   Nature can be such a ham at times.

10I got my husband to lay the table.

11He kept my mother company as she enjoyed her sundown bruschetta on the balcony.

14.jpgI stayed in the kitchen getting on with our meal.  My mother had brought some tripe she had made earlier.  Trippa alla romana, which my husband loves.  So, heating that up and covering it with pecorino was easy enough.

15There had been no mention of green beans being dangerous in any way.  So, I had prepared some with a clean conscience.

16I pan fried some breaded beef slices.  Who doesn’t love a “fettina panata” now and then?

12I heated up the potato cake and then slid it onto a plate.  I apologise for the photo, not a good one.

13I heated the pecorino cream sauce and poured it over the potato cake.

17Rustic tablecloth, colourful combination of various hues  – thorougly unsubtle at that.  Sometimes, it’s  a good idea to go for ‘cheery’ even though it’s a mite over-the-top.  Dinner was ready to be enjoyed.

18And enjoy it she did, phew.  My mother said it was really nice.  She did not eat all of it and took the rest of it home later.

19Grapes were fortunately also not on the Verboten list.

And all in all we had a lovely evening, followed by watching the film “Florence”, with Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant.

The moral of this story?  The enjoment of food, especially at a certain age, is an essential part of a life worth living.  Do not let dour medicine get in the way of it.  Get thee hence Coumadin.  Roll on the new medication.  But in the meantime, even a ‘restricted’ meal must appear to be inviting.

Pencil Sharpening the Courgettes

My friend Emanuela has a knack for choosing little gifts that she knows I will really appreciate, she manages to find me the best kind of present in my view: anything that is not strictly necessary.  I am always reminded of Voltaire’s motto “le superflu, chose si nécessaire” – i.e. the superfluous is such a necessary thing.  Shakespeare would have agreed with Voltaire entirely with his:

“O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous.
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man’s life is cheap as beast’s.”

Well, let me tell you, my ‘nature’ is very high maintenance and I am the opposite of ‘minimalist’.  One has to be very rich or very poor to be a true minimalist so, being neither, it has been my lot to weigh in where surroundings and ‘things’ have to convey an element of beauty over and above utility.

Emanuela bought me a huge pencil sharpener which of course isn’t a pencil sharpener at all.  It’s a cheep and cheerful gadget, bought at a Tiger store in Rome, that can peel any vegetable small enough to fit into it.  I was delighted with it!  And today’s post is about my first foray with it.


I used the pencil, whether rightly or wrongly, it didn’t come with instructions, to ‘sharpen’ some courgettes (zucchine).  That was easy enough to do.  The shaved courgettes looked very pretty.  But what was I to do with them?  Now what?  I picked up my glass of wine.


I walked out onto our balcony.  It was that time of day.  Perhaps, my favourite time of day.  As I watched the sun go down, I decided that there was one recipe with which I simply could not go wrong.  The Fried-Food-Fanatic in me was gleefully clapping her hands at the prospect of a ‘new’ frying jaunt.  Back to the kitchen, firm of intent this time, a spring in my step.


Flour, dried oregano, sweet paprika, and an egg.  I added water and a serving spoon of grappa.  A wee dribble of olive oil.  And hey presto! the batter was made.


I placed the courgettes with the batter in the fridge.


I had some saltwort to sort out too.  Saltwort goes by the name of  “agretti” or “barba di frate” in Italian.  I blanched it briefly, then drained it.9

I decided to toss it in a pan with plenty of guanciale.


This photo is of the finished dish which I repeated a few days later (I didn’t manage to take one of the agretti /barba di frate that evening), it was that worth it.  But back to the courgettes, which I now took out of the fridge.


Once fried, I put them over some kitchen paper.


And it was then that I had the inspiration to draw on some grated pecorino cheese for a bit of ‘ooomph’.


I like sprinkling grated cheese over foods … I wonder why.


15I went to the  balcony, to say arrivederci to the sun and finish my glass of wine.

And then it was time to eat.


You see? Without that ‘superfluous’ pencil sharpener, I would never have come up with this recipe !



A Flash in the Pan but not a Flashy Fish Recipe

Sometimes it is easy to forget how a handful of readily available ingredients are all that it takes to make a simple fish taste so good.


This couple of ‘orata’ (sea bream) were caught from near Civitavecchia, or so the fishmonger told me as he gutted them and removed their scales.  One orata for me, one for hubby, they weighed about 700 g each.  When I got home, I rinsed them again in running water, and patted them dry.


I put some flour aside for coating them later on.

3In the saucepan to start with: olive oil, butter and some sweet paprika.

4Once the heat was turned on, I added some garlic, minced parsely and about a teaspoonful of coriander.

5After flouring the fish on both sides, I lay them gently into the bubbling olive oil and butter.

6I did my best to turn them over without removing any of the skin, but as you can see, I wasn’t entirely successful.

8I had some white wine on standby.

7Once I deemed the fish to be cooked, I placed them over a bed of plain peas seasoned with a little bit of butter and salt.

9I poured some wine into the saucepan, turned the heat up in order to let the alcohol evaporate, and then poured whatever lovely juices remained through a sieve all over the fish.

10On the table and ready to be served.  Doesn’t look like much, and yet is was so satisfying (all that butter folks! and the nuance of paprika and coriander) and very pleasant to eat.

11Also on the menu was saltwort which had been blanched first and then cooked through in another saucepan which was waiting for it with crispy guanciale (pork jowl) and all that that entailed.  It’s the first time I served ‘barba di frate’ or ‘agretti’ as saltwort is called in Italian this way.  I know it won’t be the last.

I think it took me less than 20 minutes to make this dinner.