By Rachel Roddy
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Weaving together stories, memories, and recipes for thick bean soups, fresh pastas, braised vegetables, and slow-cooked meats, My Kitchen in Rome captures the spirit of Rachel’s beloved blog, Rachel Eats, and offers readers the chance to cook “cucina romana” without leaving the comfort of home.
Table of Contents
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Five reasons for five quarters
There is an alternate title for this book, Five Quarters, and there are five reasons for this.
The quarter of Rome that I call home, Testaccio, is shaped like a quarter, or a large wedge of cheese. Although in the heart of the city, it feels like a village.
Quinto quarto (the fifth quarter) is the name of the distinctive style of cooking created by the workers of the Testaccio slaughterhouse during the 1890s. Partly paid in kind with offal—which makes up a quarter of the animal's weight, hence "fifth quarter"—the workers (or their wives) found clever ways of transforming their wages into nourishing and tasty meals.
If we develop the idea that the fifth quarter is made up of the things that are usually discarded, the Romans are masters at using them, like the starchy pasta-cooking water, a ladle of which is the key to bringing the pasta and sauce together; the bean-cooking water, which is often the foundation and flavor in classic Roman soups; old bread, which is dampened back to life and tossed with chopped tomatoes, salt, and olive oil or used as a base for soup; and ricotta, the soft, curd-like cheese that is so important to Roman cooking and is a by-product of pecorino making.
A classic Roman meal, too, is made up of five parts: the antipasti, or starter; a pasta primo; a meat or fish secondo; a vegetable contorno; and a sweet dolce.
There are, of course, only four quarters. In cooking, I think of the fifth quarter as the other thing (or things), in addition to ingredients, that are needed when you prepare food: common sense, good taste, imagination, and experience. It's what you bring to a recipe by making it again and again until it is your own.
How it began
Of course I thought Rome was glorious, but I didn't want to stay. A month, three at most, then I'd take the train back to Sicily to finish the clockwise journey I'd interrupted before moving farther southward somewhere. I had no plan, only a vague notion that I would know the place I could settle in when I found it. It was about halfway through that first reluctant month—April 2005, to be exact—that my oldest friend, Joanna, came to stay for a few days, bringing with her a suitcase the size of a few weeks and the itinerary of an architect. We spent her first three days negotiating maps, disconcerting curves in the river, and other tourists in search of fluted columns and flights of steps. Then, on her fourth day, we visited one of the most Roman of all Roman quarters: Testaccio.
Approaching Testaccio for the first time, as we did by bus that day, I was caught off guard. Linear and grid-like, the blocks of undistinguished-looking nineteenth-century buildings seemed hard, passionless even, after the warren of medieval alleys and the exhilarating sprawl of imperial ruins we'd been lost in. We walked, or wandered really (the best way, and invariably a happy adventure in Rome), down tree-lined vie, past tenement blocks and clusters of chattering signore, and pressed our noses up against the frosted-glass windows of local trattorias. In the courtyard of one block, while Joanna made notes about the internal stairwell and talked about public housing schemes, I watched a wicker basket being lowered from a window, filled with shopping, reeled back up, and swallowed by a clotted lace curtain. In another courtyard, which had washing hung like smiles under almost every window, we dodged a trio of boys playing, their ball ricocheting from the internal walls, until a voice called out 'tacci tua! and the boys scattered like marbles, us too. Years later, now that I fully understand the connotations of 'tacci tua, I cringe at our thick tourist skins, walking around a private courtyard admiring the washing, only to be shooed away by an old lady and this very best of Roman insults.
We must have walked along via Branca because I remember thinking that trattoria Agustarello looked plainly appealing. We certainly walked along via Beniamino Franklin, because at the end of it we stood looking up at the statue of a winged god punching out an innocent bull sitting above the entrance to Rome's sprawling ex-slaughterhouse. We stood for quite some time getting our bearings before walking all the way through the vast complex, the meat hooks on long rails still hanging where they had been left 30 years ago. The slaughterhouse led us to the base of what appeared to be a hill, but was actually an ancient pile of broken terra-cotta amphorae. Curving round the hill of broken pots, we came upon a section of the Aurelian wall, which led us to a cypress-shaded cemetery where Keats is buried, juxtaposed with a Futurist post office and a sharply pointed ancient pyramid. Joanna read dates and details from the guidebook: 1872, 1st century AD, 1821, 1933, AD 271. It looked and felt a little like a scene from a pop-up book illustrating buildings from more than 2,500 years of history, except they were all coexisting in the present, both preposterous and wonderful. From the pyramid we walked, me in the heavy boots I'd bought in Naples and Joanna in yellow heels, around the perimeter of Testaccio with its two cut sides and deep curve along the river. We barely caught sight of another tourist.
Eventually we found ourselves at the center of the coarse and chaotic old market, with its iron uprights and grimy glass roof, the air damp and bosky. We wandered, staring at whole waxed wheels of pecorino cheese, hind legs of prosciutto and a tom-tom-drum-sized can of salted anchovies, over which a woman sat poised, spoon in hand, ready to scoop and wrap her silver-streaked, salt-encrusted fish in waxed paper. We marveled at the unruly heaps of wild cicoria (chicory), crates of globe artichokes with violet-stained petals and silvery leaves, piles of peas, fave (fava beans), lemons, and the first of the tomatoes, deeply fluted and smelling of the tangled vine on which they grew. In return for our stares we received stares back, mostly aimed at Joanna it must be said, who, although happy to accept a free pear and an impertinent che bella!, was actually more interested in the 1970s roof elevations.
It was at least midday by the time we sat at one of the small tables outside Zia Elena for ill-timed cappuccinos and sweet yeasted buns called maritozzi. Then, as we have done since the ages of three and four respectively, we thought, and then raced to say, the same thing at the same moment: that Testaccio was extraordinary and I should find a flat here. That night we had supper at the trattoria that had caught my eye, Agustarello, where I ate my first cacio e pepe (pasta with cheese and pepper), a dish infinitely more delicious than it sounds if the maker has the know-how and flick of the wrist to turn the cheese and the pasta-cooking water into a seductive, soft sauce. There were also lamb chops and braised Roman artichokes, I think, although I can't be sure, as we also drank far too much of a pleasant Frascati. We finished the meal with the herbal digestif Amaro, which made us shudder, before walking back through the piazza to catch our bus.
Two weeks later, with Joanna gone, I signed a year-long contract for a small flat at a gentrified rent next to the market. Did I know at this point that Testaccio was the somewhere I'd been looking for? Looking back, that was possibly so; certainly, I celebrated with a bottle of Sicilian red, which left me unfit for anything, let alone unpacking or mattress shifting, and fell asleep on the sofa. The next day I fell into life in Testaccio. That is, the coffee bar for breakfast, then the bakery (il forno) for bread, before walking round the quarter, and occasionally beyond it, always ending up where I'm happiest: wandering round the market, figuring out what to have for lunch and dinner. Within weeks I had met more neighbors and shopkeepers than I'd met during seven years in east London. My days continued just so, contrasting sharply but softly with my old London life. They felt simple and straightforward, punctuated with waves of relief that I had finally got away, and idealistic, possibly clichéd delight at finding myself living this particular life in this particular corner of Rome.
The idealism faded, of course, into something worn and occasionally jaded, but more appropriate. The delight remained bright and constant, though, as did the routine, which was fortified when work and reality seeped its way back into my life—bar, bakery, market, fishmonger, butcher, my kitchen, bar again—fixed points around which everything else rotated. I had never enjoyed living anywhere as much as my wedge-shaped quarter with its fierce sense of community and rich but commonplace history. I should note that Testaccio, and its shops, bars, and most certainly the market itself, is a far cry from any rustic, whimsical, or Mediterranean idyll you might imagine, for although charming and charismatic, it is straightforward, traditional, ordinary. It is also an area tangibly struggling with change and the age-old story of gentrification, of which I was the surest sign: rising rents pushing out the traditional parts of the community and replacing them with a new crop of people with deeper pockets. My guilt wasn't going to change anything, but my loyalty to the local shops might. So I was loyal, and embraced la vita del quartiere (the life of the quarter) wholeheartedly.
In December 2005, in much the same way that I'd fallen into life in Rome (that is, reluctantly and unexpectedly), I fell in love with Vincenzo, a Sicilian who'd been living in Rome for 25 years. I began writing my blog in September 2008, when I'd been in Testaccio for three and a half years, and Vincenzo and I were still living next to the market, directly above a bakery called Passi and across the courtyard from the boisterous trattoria Il Bucatino. I was teaching full-time by now, mostly English to children through theater and music. The rest of the time I spent cooking, eating, and writing. I'd always enjoyed them, but these three things really came together—collided, if you like—in this small kitchen in this distinct part of Rome. I was plainly happier than I'd been in a long time.
In Rome, my writing took on a new importance as I tried to understand a completely different way of buying, preparing, eating, drinking, and thinking about food: the sheepy nature of pecorino cheese, the consistency of a carbonara, the way Romans mix garlic, rosemary, and white wine; the way they braise veal slowly, roast lamb with rosemary and the knack of ripassare (re-passing) cooked vegetables in fearless quantities of garlic-scented olive oil, which makes everything taste so sensual and good.
I began to observe similarities as well as differences. Roman food, I noticed, had much in common with traditional English food, particularly that of my northern relatives: the simplicity and straightforwardness of it (my grandfather would have said "no fuss"); the resourcefulness; the use of offal; the long, slow braises using less popular cuts of meat; the battered cod; the love of peas and potatoes, asparagus and mint; the jam tarts, stewed fruit, and spiced fruit cakes. These connections were reassuring to me and made cooking even more of a newfound pleasure. I took pleasure, too, in taking the photographs that became central to the story, always taken in my flat, always in real time—which means meal times.
Difficulties, I suppose, were inevitable. At first it seemed like a summer storm, the sort that appears to come from nowhere and rains off the lunch. Of course, storms—actual or otherwise—have their antecedents, they come from specific conditions and have usually been rumbling away somewhere in the background. In creating a new life, I'd run away from an old one, but of course I hadn't really, I'd simply brought myself and my difficulties with me, and there they were, sitting on the sofa like unwanted visitors in an Alan Ayckbourn play. The details aren't important here; I mention this simply as a counterbalance to the idealistic delight I've been going on about. I imagined I might leave, although for where I'm not sure. It was an unedifying time.
I spent a couple of months across the river in a part of Rome called Trastevere as a guest in a friend's studio in a grand frescoed palazzo overlooking Palazzo Farnesina. It was, I thought each morning as I set my feet on the cobbles of via della Lungara, the quintessential Roman setting. It was also, for me at least, ill-fitting, and where I realized the importance of Testaccio, the people, place, and the life I had created within it. Storms can wreak havoc, but they do pass. That's not to say that suddenly everything was fine—far from it—but like after the rain, when the air is clean, color returns, and the light sharpens detail, things became clearer. I moved back to Testaccio. I was also having a baby.
The routine I had fallen into so happily when I first arrived took on a new, reassuring significance during my pregnancy. I walked increasingly slowly during that long, hot summer, from the bar (the coffee kind), to the bakery, to the market, collecting shopping and extraordinary amounts of prenatal advice at each pit stop. Luca, a bonny boy, was born in September and was with me at the market three days later. Three years later, he runs along beside me, shouting in English or Italian and shooting imaginary spiderwebs at old ladies.
We outgrew the small two-roomed flat on via Mastro Giorgio, the one above the bakery and across the courtyard from the noisy trattoria. It's still ours, though, acting as a studio in which I have written most of this book, with the smell of bread, the clatter of plates, and an occasional kitchen outburst providing a familiar and reassuring backdrop. We now rent a flat on via Galvani, one of Testaccio's busier streets, which is probably the best positioned in that it lies between my trusted shops and just minutes from the new market. The market has moved, and the old structure with its iron uprights and grimy glass roof has been replaced with a bright, white structure just opposite the old slaughterhouse. The stallholders remain the same, though, notably my fruit and vegetable stand, my butcher, and my cunning fishmonger, Mauro.
It is Mauro's fish, a sea bass shining like a newly minted coin fresh from Anzio this morning, that is sitting on the drain board as I write. The stainless-steel drain board made my heart sink when I first saw it, but now suits me fine. It's large, functional, and flooded with light, and the place I am happiest to stand (I never feel tied to it) and appreciate the good things I have bought from the market that morning. Talking of which, I'd think I'd better go and make lunch.
Working on the principle we all know—that good ingredients are the basis for good food—why do we often skimp on the most important one, the fragrant, flavorful foundation of so many dishes: olive oil? It really is the essence of your cooking, so seek out a basic, good-quality, extra-virgin olive oil, ideally with specific provenance (Italy is too general—look for a region, for example Lazio, Umbria, or Abruzzo) and a guarantee of origin such as DOP or IGP. It won't be cheap, but neither should it be very expensive. Extra-virgin olive oil is, of course, as complex as wine, and different oils from different regions possess different qualities. However, rather than having a shelf full of different bottles, I would focus on finding one good-quality oil that suits you, and use that for everything.
The same goes for the rest of the ingredients. Seek out the best you can afford: onions, garlic, seasonal fruit and vegetables, good-quality dried pasta, canned plum tomatoes, ideally San Marzano, canned chickpeas, dried lentils, a jar of anchovies, olives, eggs, bread, and a piece of Parmesan or pecorino. These are my basics, reassuring me that I can make myself and however many people happen to be around something good to eat. If there are also butter, cured pork (either pancetta or guanciale), frozen peas, and a bar of chocolate, better still.
As a rule, I use free-range eggs, granulated sugar, unwaxed organic lemons, unsalted butter, Italian 00 flour (a finely ground soft wheat flour), and decent red wine vinegar. I have three types of salt: coarse sea salt for pasta-cooking water, fine salt for seasoning when cooking, and English flaky sea salt for seasoning at the table.
As for herbs, I had great hopes for my small balcony and how it would become home to a small potted kitchen garden. As I write, the rosemary plant and small bay tree are hanging on for dear life, but the sage is a goner. The basil plant on the drain board, however, is thriving, and the stalks of flat-leaf parsley in a glass covered with a shower cap are holding out well. Keeping herbs fresh is an ongoing battle for me, but one I continue to fight because they are so important to the food I like to cook, particularly rosemary, sage, bay leaves, basil, and parsley. With the occasional exception of oregano and marjoram, I don't use dried herbs.
Some of the best meals I've eaten in Italy have been cooked in small, ordinary kitchens on straightforward stoves using simple, basic equipment. I have also eaten some wonderful meals cooked in large kitchens equipped with every conceivable tool and appliance, and armies of pans. It's not that one is better than the other—good food can be prepared in either way, in either kitchen. However, it is the ordinary and simple that appeals to me, since it's more inclusive and uncomplicated, rather like the food itself.
I arrived in Italy with nothing, which meant I had the opportunity to start again in terms of kitchen equipment. I took my lead from what I saw in the kitchens of cooks I liked and whose food I wanted to eat. I was determined to keep things simple (which is not necessarily in my nature) and to remember the logistics of my own small kitchen. Over the last ten years I have accumulated a set of kitchen equipment that serves me well and is all I need to prepare the food I like to make and eat. Much of it was bought locally (several bits secondhand), other things were brought back from England, and several of the nicest pieces were gifts. I have one electric appliance. Because we decided it was best that I cooked and photographed all the food for the book in my kitchen over the course of a year in real time, you will see all my equipment pictured in the following pages.
A big pan
The workhorse of the kitchen is the 6-quart pan that I use to cook 2–6 portions of pasta. It is medium-weight aluminum, which means it's manageable even when full of boiling water. I also boil potatoes and large quantities of vegetables, and wilt spinach in this pan.
A 1-quart heavy-bottomed stainless-steel pan for cooking one portion of pasta, a few vegetables, frying in small quantities, and watering the plants nearest the door. I also have a small pan for milk, cream, and custard, which is just the right shape for balancing a bowl on for a makeshift bain-marie.
The partner to the big pan is a three-legged colander I found in a secondhand shop. It hangs above the sink, ready to be plonked in it to drain or rinse vegetables.
A deep frying/sauté pan
I have a large, deep sauté pan with a long handle, the kind you see in trattoria kitchens, which I mostly use to make sauce or prepare vegetables for pasta. You will see it again and again in the book. It has a heavy enough base to cook evenly, but is light enough to lift and flip when you add the pasta to the sauce. It also has a lid.
A heavy casserole dish
My oval orange Le Creuset was a birthday present from Vincenzo. I call it my peperonata pan because of the sheer quantity of stewed peppers I insist on making in it. I actually use it for countless things, though: braising meat, making thick soups, poaching fruit, and occasionally baking bread. From time to time I convince myself I need a bigger version of this. I really don't.
A food mill (mouli)
This is a favorite kitchen tool, which warrants a whole paragraph in part 2 (here).
A special sauté pan
Worth almost as much as everything else in the kitchen put together, my copper sauté pan was a gift from my sister and her husband and my brother and his wife for my fortieth birthday. Although by no means ordinary or essential—the sauté pan and casserole have it covered—it is a joy to cook in because of the way it conducts heat and cooks evenly and slowly. I fry, braise, stew, poach, coddle, and simmer in this beautiful pan. It too has a lid.
A grill pan
The heavy sort made from cast iron with ridges, which sits on the stovetop and leaves pleasing black lines and a smoky tang on steak, fish, and vegetables, and sends smoke rushing through your hair. I leave it to cool on the balcony and then forget about it, so it gets rained on and by the next day rust is taking hold, which I then have to scrub away. I am extremely fond of my grill pan.
With the exception of cookies and cakes, almost everything else that goes in the oven is in one of two enamel roasting pans I bought from Emanuela's stall on Testaccio market.
An immersion blender
This is my only electric appliance. I use it for soups, sauces, making cakes (or, rather, cake, since I only really make one), and occasionally whipping cream.
A manual pasta roller
This was a gift that sat in the cupboard for a year before I first used it. These days it gets clamped to the table at some point most weeks.
A mortar and pestle
Which I no longer have, because I broke it the week I began work on the book. I have been using the end of a rolling pin in a thick glass jar to grind spices and the immersion blender to make pesto, which means it isn't the same. I would like another one.
- On Sale
- Feb 2, 2016
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Grand Central Life & Style