Carciofi alla romana

It's late March and Spring has not-so-subtly made its presence known here in Rome, announcing its arrival with sunshine-y, jacket-optional weather, fragrant jasmine blossoms, and much longer days, not to mention green, and lots of it (Winter who?!) Market stalls, supermarkets, and neighborhood fruit and veggie vendors in the Eternal City are overflowing with its favorite shade, in the form of peas and fava beans and green beans and asparagus and -- most glorious of them all -- the mighty artichoke aka 
IL C A R C I O F O  

First things first: carciofi (car-cho-fee!) are a big deal in Rome, highly anticipated and nearly revered, and judging by their appearance, they seem to know it, too. They're the most eye-catching veggie at the market, pure show-offs dressed up in emerald green and violet, all pretty and layered and flower-like, and now that I mention it, I'd take a bouquet of carciofi over roses any day (photographic evidence below). Our unapologetic-ally magnificent carciofo plays an important role in Roman cuisine and can be found all over menus in the Spring, whether fried whole until crispy and deeply golden alla giudiatossed with fava beans and peas to make vignarola (more on that soon) or braised with herbs and garlic alla romana
Having said all this, I'll be honest here: while I'd like to tell you I fully assimilated in to Roman culture and cuisine upon arrival in the capital, immediately falling in love with the artichokes at my local outdoor market (romantic!) I didn't, up until a few years ago, really pay the Roman artichoke any mind (blasphemy!) While I very much liked eating them, I did so only when dining out, and kept it at that. After all, the beautiful carciofo was intimidating, kind of high maintenance (what do you expect from a supermodel veg,?) involving things like peeling and trimming and a sharp knife and spiky leaves and hairy chokes and to be honest, I wasn't all that interested.

But with time I grew older, a little wiser, and decided to first dip my toe in the carciofo pool about two years ago, when I made these beauties here, and found that while artichokes did err on the side of tricky they were something I could make at home (!!!) They required lots of preparation, yes, and they didn't come out pristine and perfect, no, but the pay off was delicious, and that extra bit of effort made me feel proud and very chef-y as I trimmed and snapped away and fried and was left with a big bowl of purple-y leaves. I was officially converted, inducted in to the Carciofo Club, and have never looked back since.

So! Here is the recipe for perhaps the most classic Roman artichoke recipe -- called carciofi alla romana, obviously -- which I recently made with Queen Carla Tomasi at Latteria Studio (this class here). As always, I got lots of helpful tips from Carla, this time on artichoke prep -- if only my precision and ease in prepping artichokes were as great as my enthusiasm for them! -- but preparation aside (practice makes perfect!) this recipe is downright simple, just requiring a few ingredients and half an hour in the pan, after which you will find yourself with: a pot of fork-tender and buttery carciofi (miles away from their former spiky selves) which have been braised in olive oil until the leaves are soft and lightly golden brown and steamed until the formidable stems are equally so, each one shining in all its artichoke-y splendor with just a little bite from the garlic and a bit of brightness from the parsley. **gazes off dreamily in to the distance**. 

Long story short, these are a true joy to eat, whether it be as an antipasto or a side dish or if you're me, for dinner, accompanied by some nice cheese and pomodori secchi and freshly baked bread. Make these asap and tell me grazie later.

Looking for other Spring-y recipes? I've got these carciofi alla giudia, this pasta frittata with asparagus, this asparagus with burrata, this roasted asparagus pizza, this frittata con fave, pecorino, and pancetta, this panzanella primaverile, this pasta with fave and pecorino, and this torta pasqualina.

A couple of notes: You can add either wine or water to the artichokes when you braise them; note that you might need to add a little more liquid as necessary, so take the above-mentioned quantity as a suggestion. I have made these with both wine and water and have to say I prefer them with water, as it allows the artichoke flavor to shine a bit more. See what suits you however. I personally do not like fresh mint so have used parsley, but feel free to use whichever herb you like best. 

Serves 4. 

4 large Romanesco artichokes
A big handful of parsley (or mint if you prefer)
2 garlic cloves
1/2 cup (about 100mL) olive oil
1 cup white wine or water (about 250mL)
Salt and pepper

First, prepare your artichokes! Fill a large bowl with water, halve and squeeze 2 lemons into it, and set aside. Using a sharp knife, cut off top of artichoke and bottom most part of stem. Trim away fibrous outer layer of the stem (I use a vegetable peeler for this) and feel free to trim any longer stems; you can cook the stems with the artichokes (they're delicious). 
Next, work your way around the artichoke and remove the tough outer leaves to expose the tender inner leaves. Using a spoon, scrape out the inedible, hairy choke in the center of each heart. Lastly, use a sharp knife to cut off the bits of artichoke base remaining from where you removed the tough leaves. Transfer the cleaned artichokes to bowl of lemon water as you go. Having said all this: If you have any doubt about preparing artichokes, there are lots of YouTube tutorials, plus these excellent guidelines from Serious Eats found here, plus some step-by-step photos from my post on carciofi alla giudia. Note that this is a very Roman preparation of the artichoke, and is a little time consuming, but worth it; the resulting artichoke isn't as impressive as a big globe on the plate, but you can eat this one!
Next, make your filling. Chop the garlic and set aside. Roll up the bunch of parsley (or mint if you prefer) and roughly chop it, then using your knife, incorporate the garlic, a bit of salt, and a few grinds of pepper. Next, remove your artichokes from the lemon-y water, tap them on your cutting board a few times to remove any excess water and to open the leaves a bit, and stuff each with a bit of the parsley/garlic mixture.
Place your stuffed artichokes in a large pot on the stove, placing them fairly close together. Pour in the olive oil and the water or the wine. Cover the pot with a lid, if you have it, or cover them with a piece of parchment paper folded to close the top of the pot, thus allowing the artichokes to both steam and braise at the same time. 
Let your artichokes cook for about 25-30 minutes; they're done when a knife inserted in the thicket part of the artichoke stem goes through with no problems. Place on a platter, sprinkle with a little extra parsley, and enjoy.

Chocolate Orange and Olive Oil Cake

I made a resolution this year to get out of my culinary comfort zone, with plans to start making more of my own cheese and fresh pasta (my new pasta machine arrived just yesterday!) not to mention take a stab at things like strudel with intimidatingly thin pastry, fussy babka, unfamiliar and un-Italian soup dumplings, and a whole roast turkey, too, because meat has always been my Achilles heel (can the meat thermometer be trusted?! what is actually the thickest part of the bird?! are the juices running clear?! will the turkey be too raw or too dry or just right?!) My doubts are many (at least for now).

Having said this: while I am eager to carry out the above-mentioned plans --  and I think I'd be letting us all down if I didn't work my way through the list 'RAVIOLI FILLING IDEAS' I composed during the work day, shh -- the fact remains that sometimes, grand aspirations aside, it is often nice to turn to what is familiar, what is easy, and therefore what is most comforting. My years in Italy -- where desserts tend to be on the simpler side -- have taught me the beauty of a simple cake, or ciambellone, cioe' cakes with no airs about them or loftiness in sight, which are unadorned and understated, good as dessert or with tea or at breakfast or as a snack or just because. This is my favorite thing to bake -- just check the blog index -- and that I couldn't staaway from even if I tried, recipe resolutions or not. cake like this Chocolate Orange and Olive Oil cake -- my own spin on Rachel Roddy's splendid Lemon Ricotta and Olive Oil Cake -- fits the bill nicely. 

So! This is cake is simple in appearance, yes -- no frosting or frills or filling (yay alliteration) -- but the flavor is anything but. It's soft and fluffy thanks to the teamwork of ricotta and olive oil, and it's very chocolate-y but in just the right measure, so as not to overwhelm the citrus, which -- in all its fragrant orange splendor! -- compliments said chocolate in the most lovely of ways. It's a real treat, and best of all, comes together in no time at all (after all, my favorite cakes do not require beaters, or softening of butter, or mutiple layers) which is just what we want when cake is involved, right? Stay tuned for a post on fresh pasta and roasts, yes, but in the meantime, I think you too will appreciate the respite and reassurance of a piece of chocolate cake, especially one like this. 

A couple of notes: This one is pretty simple; feel free to stir in some mini chocolate chips if you want to really up this chocolate factor here. I have been meaning to try this substituting plain whole-milk yogurt for the ricotta (purely out of curiosity) so will try that next -- stay tuned!

For more ciambelloni: this Lemon Ricotta Cake, this White Chocolate Blueberry Cake, and this Brownie Ciambellone, and this Apple CakeLooking for other simple cake recipes? I've got this Chocolate Loaf Cake, this Ricotta Pound cake, this Mimosa (orange and Prosecco) cake, this Triple Orange Pound cake, and this Lemon poppyseed loaf.

Recipe adapted from Rachel Roddy.

2 cups flour (260 grams) 
1/3 cup cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup sugar (200 grams)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 ounce semi-sweet chocolate, melted and cooled
1 cup ricotta (205 grams)
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil (224 grams)
4 large eggs
Zest of 3 oranges

Powdered sugar, for serving

Preheat the oven to 350°F (170 degrees Celsius). Butter a 9-inch diameter bundt pan, tube pan, or loaf pan. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, sugar, and salt. Set aside. In another bowl, whisk together the ricotta and olive oil until smooth. Add in the eggs one at a time, whisking after each addition until they are fully incorporated and the batter is smooth. Add the vanilla and melted chocolate. Pour the ricotta mixture into the flour mixture and whisk until the ingredients are combined and the batter is thick and smooth. Fold in the orange zest using a wooden spoon. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top with the spatula. Bake for 30-40 minutes, or until the cake is golden and a cake tester comes out clean. Let cool completely, then dust with powdered sugar and serve.

Cooking with Carla

I've mentioned Latteria Studio and Carla Tomasi on this blog before -- here and here as well -- but it's about time they got a post all to themselves, especially given that Carla is the best cook I know, and Latteria Studio has decidedly become what one could define my ''happy place,'' or rather a place where I feel relaxed, at ease, and perfectly content. 

If you're not familiar, Latteria Studio -- opened in 2015 by Alice Adams, and located in the Trastevere neighborhood -- is a space that serves many purposes (photography studio! kitchen space for rent! event venue!) but best of all, is also home to cooking classes of all kinds (!!!) There are monthly Market to Table classes, where participants shop at the Mercato Testaccio, then head to Latteria to cook with their ingredients; there are Skills classes, which focus on a specific theme, like bread or preserves or desserts; there are classes with visiting cooks, who teach you to make unfamiliar things like dumplings and spring rolls; there are classes that can be tailored to the participants interests, with a more personalized menu.
Carla Tomasi -- a self-described "cookery teacher/pickler/jammer/baker/preserver/busy body" is also a walking encyclopedia (seriously: ask her any question you have about food, and she will have the detailed answer) not to mention a superb cook, an equally superb instructor, and one of my very favorite people. Carla left Rome when she was only 18 to live in London, where she had many jobs in the food industry (including her own restaurant in Soho) before eventually returning to Rome some 20 years later to teach, bestowing her wealth of knowledge (culinary and otherwise -- she's one wise lady) upon her fortunate students. This wealth of knowledge plus an excellent approach to food -- cooking seasonally, with a heavy emphasis on vegetables, and the curiosity to explore cuisines beyond just Roman -- translates in to stellar cooking classes.

So! Simply put, a class with Carla is, well, special, from start to finish. Freshly brewed coffee and freshly baked cinnamon rolls greet you upon arrival; the atmosphere in the Studio manages to be both relaxed and lively and fun all at the same time; there's a sense of team work and good will as you work with your fellow participants, united in the same goal: a good meal. No matter what sort of class you've done, it ends with an overall sense of accomplishment and, well, betterment, because  you've really learned something -- whether it be how to make a really good piadina, the correct rice to use for seafood risotto, the easiest way to peel usually tricky squash -- and you leave the studio happy, satisfied, and convinced that there is no better way to spend a morning. Classes at Latteria are a cut above all others I have taken here in Rome, and a class there -- whether you live in Rome like me or if you are here on vacation -- is worth your while, a hundred times over.

So! I took a class with Carla just last week, one that was particularly special, as it was organized for a group of some of my closest friends in Rome. The friends in question -- an international group, from England, Scotland, Ecuador, India, and the U.S -- had been wanting to take class with Carla for quite a while and with a little patience (arranging a class around the different schedules 6+ people is no easy task) we found a day, time, and menu that worked for everyone:

-Cinnamon rolls/coffee (breakfast upon arrival)
-Mozzarella and parmesan fritters with chili tomato dipping sauce
-Foccaci(three kinds)
-Carciofi alla romana
-Broccolo romanesco (agrodolce)
-Ravioli, two ways
-Chocolate fudge souffle cake

With no further ado, here are some photos and a little bit about our class with Carla last Saturday!

We dove right in to our lesson with focaccia, where Carla advised on on the best kind of flour to use (half strong bread flour, half soft wheat flour, and nothing too cheap!) the correct ratio of flour to water (for every 100 grams of flour you should add about 65 grams of water) and what to top them with (fresh herbs always go on after the focaccia is out of the oven, so not to turn them bitter in the oven) among many other things. We went on to make pear and gorgonzola focaccia (extra gorgonzola, because the more cheese the better) a red onion and olive tapenade focaccia, and a simple rosemary focaccia, which disappeared faster than I could photograph it. All three were fluffy and golden brown and downright heavenly -- in that way that only bread fresh from the oven can be --  and as if that weren't enough we also made savory fritters with both mozzarella and parmesan (did I mention we like cheese?!) served with a spicy sweet tomato chili jam. All of our snacks paireperfectly with a cold glass of Prosecco, and needless to say, we were off to a very good start.

Having had our fill of carbs, we turned to something a little fresher and greener, or rather, artichokes done the Roman way -- braised and steamed with parsley and garlic -- and broccolo romanesco, a vegetable that is sort of a cross between broccoli and cauliflower, light green and almost flower-like in appearance, cooked with capers, saffron, onions, and pine nuts. Carla patiently walked us through the artichoke prep process -- explaining that we needed to remove quite a bit of the exterior leaves (necessary given the climate and environments artichokes grow in, but not for eating!) plus the spiky ends and tough outer stem. Any extra long stems were cut, peeled, and added to the mix as well ("the best part," Carla declared) and all was left to bubble and steam away merrily on the stove. The broccolo prep was a bit more straightforward -- just cut the florets from the stem -- and the mix of ingredients was something new, a little different, super delicious with a hint of saffron, and most certainly not your mother's broccoli. "Eat your vegetables" was never so easy.

While there was definitely a bit of back and forth and brainstorming when it came to deciding the menu, all six of us were unanimous when it came to the main: fresh pasta was a must. After all, pasta from scratch is quintessentially Italian and universally loved, but still a skill that requires some guidance, not exactly a recipe you're likely to get right on your first try. Carla, lucky for us, is a master of fresh pasta (you can actually see her preparing cannelloni here) and guided us through the process, with advice along the way (flour is important, and Farina Mulino Spadoni 00 is the best; fresh eggs are a must; a good, sturdy machine is important, and Atlas and Imperia are the best brands, etc etc). With a little team work and patience we had made fresh egg pasta dough and fresh chestnut flour pasta dough, plus two fillings: potato, parmesan, and taleggio and pumpkin, sage, and philadelphia (a good substitute for the usual ricotta when you have a friend who has a ricotta allergy)!

Once we'd gone through the ravioli making process with Carla, it was our turn to try making them on our own (gulp). I'm happy to report we did very well for ourselves; here's my friend Sarah preparing the pasta just as Carla demonstrated, rolling out and then folding the dough four times at "0" (to smooth it out and make it thinner!) before rolling it out one number at a time to make it nice and fine (a tricky task, which Sarah managed beautifully!) Once our pasta dough was rolled out, we distributed the various fillings (three scoops if you want your filling generous, four if you want a more moderate amount, said Carla) folded over the pasta, patted it down to avoid any air bubbles, and then -- as Carla had shown us -- cut the pasta into squares with ("very decisive!") strokes. Our finished ravioli were numerous, but less than uniform -- to be expected when said ravioli is made by various people -- which, a friend later told me, made them "ravioli come gli uomini in piazza," or rather ravioli that are all different, like men in a piazza (ha!) Below our collection of diverse but still handsome homemade ravioli, and the finished product, served with brown butter and flaked almonds, yum.

Carla is a very accomplished baker, and while I'd have been more than happy to leave dessert to her, she asked if I would like to teach this part of the lesson (!!!) which was both exciting and nerve wracking. I'd never taught any part of a cooking class, but I do know how to bake, and I think it is important to do things outside of your comfort zone every once in a while. After a little discussion with my friends (castagnole for carnevale? very British sticky toffee pudding? a very lemon-y tart?) we settled on a very rich and chocolate-y fallen chocolate souffle cake, which has been in my repertoire for a while (recipe and post here). I was surprisingly nervous, once we got started -- my hands even trembled slightly when measuring out the vanilla, no joke -- but all in all my bit on dessert went well, with me managing to explain how to separate an egg, the different phases of a beaten egg white, and the correct temperature of the melted chocolate, nerves and all. The cake was delicious (phew!) our lesson was a success, lunch was spectacular, and as you can see below, we were quite a happy bunch indeed. A huge thank you to Queen Carla -- we'll be back for another lesson soon!

Polpettone alla ricotta

It's been just a little over a month since my nonno passed away, and unsurprisingly, it hasn't been easy. We're all still grief-stricken and heartbroken and trying to figure out what life without him -- the family patriarch, constant and steady and wise and loving -- is going to look like. We're wobbly and unsure as we take our first steps in life without him here, and we're all trying our best to adjust to this new reality. 

My grandfather -- great entrepreneur that he was! -- launched a recipe contest in the 1960s to promote the mozzarella and ricotta that his business produced. He asked all of New England to send in there best recipes made with Supreme Dairy products, and he, the company founder, would not only choose a winning recipe, he would also compile the best recipes and put them in to a Supreme Dairy cookbook. The resulting book was given to me by my nonno five or six years ago, and now resides here with me in Rome (you may remember it from this post here, actually). It is a compilation of very Italian recipes (cappelletti, cannoli) and very Italo-American recipes (veal parmesan) and some very, very '60s era recipes (frozen cheese and pineapple salad, anyone?!). The winning recipe, in all this, was a humble but tasty meatloaf with ricotta.

It turns out the award winning meatloaf plays a role in one of my father's many memories of my nonno, wherein his 12 year old self was greatly opposed to my grandfather's choice -- really, meatloaf?! -- and remembers the conversation was put to rest with  decisive and unintentionally comical "THE MEATLOAF WINS! MEATLOAF IS THE FINAL DECISION!" from my grandfather. My dad called recently and asked if I could check my cookbook for the recipe, whenever I had a moment, which proved difficult given the state of my (half un-packed) apartment, a jungle of suitcases and odds and ends and boxes of many unpacked books heaped all together. I looked for my grandfather's book everywhere, but with no luck. "I can't find the book," I wrote to my dad. "Give me a second."

Long story short: I went in to my room, said out loud to my grandfather "I'm going to need that book of yours, okay?" (because I've found that talking to him sometimes is comforting, and Igues just part of the grieving process) and though I am generally not the kind of person to believe in this stuff, returned to my stack of many books a few minutes later, chose one book at random, and lo and behold, my little Supreme Dairy Cookbook fell right out. I burst in to tears, cried for a while, but also felt incredibly comforted, because -- and call me crazy if you want -- for a second there I felt that my nonno had heard me and was right there with me. It felt like someone had given me a big hug or a warm blanket or just a sign it was all going to be okay, really, and it was beyond reassuring. 

Naturally then, I had to make the winning meatloaf.

My dad was right -- meatloaf isn't always the most exciting dish -- but my grandfather was also right, because this is not just any meatloaf. It's ultra flavorful (Parmesan! onion! parsley!) and juicy and tender and best of all, its filled with ricotta, more in line with the Italian polpettone than the typical American meatloaf. It was delicious with broccoli saltati and roasted potatoes but serve it with whatever you wish for the coziest dinner you've had for a while. I'm with my nonno on this one (sorry, dad!) Meatloaf (or polpettone) wins!

A couple of notes: I used sheep's milk ricotta from my local cheese shop that was delicious but any kind of ricotta will do here, even ricotta from your local supermarket (like Supreme Dairy ricotta!) I found this to be an excellent recipe, but it was a little vague, as you can see; I found that in a 9x4x2 inch loaf pan you could make one meatloaf plus another smaller one; the cooking time was more than 25 minutes, more like 45; the quantity of the ricotta could probably be cut down on. Still here I've made the recipe as written in the cookbook, and I leave it up to you to make any little adjustments you see fit. 

Looking for other recipes with ricotta? I've got this ricotta pound cake, these ricotta and raspberry scones, this homemade ricotta, this lemon and ricotta cake, this crostata di ricotta, these polpette di ricotta, this torta di ricotta, and these castagnole di ricotta. Also, I've got this recipe for a more classic polpettone on here, too.

Serves 4. Recipe from the Supreme Dairy Cookbook.

1 pound (500 grams) ground beef
1 small onion, chopped
1 cup breadcrumbs, plus a little extra
1/2 cup (50 grams) grated Parmesan cheese
3 tablespoons parsley, chopped 
3 eggs
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup (120 mL) water
3/4 pound (300 grams) ricotta

In a large bowl, mix together the beef, onion, breadcrumbs, 2 of the eggs, 2 tablespoons of the parsley, the water, salt, pepper and the cheese. In another bowl mix together the remaining egg, parsley, the ricotta. Grease a large loaf pan with some olive oil and then sprinkle with breadcrumbs to coat, tilting the pan as you go to coat. Place half the meat mixture in the loaf pan, cover with some of the ricotta mixture -- you won't use it all -- and cover with the remaining meat mixture. Bake the polpettone for 45-55 minutes until browned on top and cooked throughout (the internal temperature should read 160 degrees Fahrenheit). Let cool slightly then serve.