Casarecce with romanesco cauliflower

This is one of my favourites: pasta with Romanesco cauliflower (cavolfiore romanesco). I made today’s recipe also because I was feeling inspired by a cookery class I did with a friend who’s originally from Puglia a short while ago. We cooked orecchiette with cime di rapa or turnip greens, and she told us how her family used to eat all together, sometimes thirty people at a time on their masseria or farmhouse in Puglia. Which in turn reminded me of eating the best pasta with chickpeas I have ever eaten in a restaurant in the centre of Lecce years ago. I don’t know the name of the restaurant, but I’m hoping if I go back there I might chance on it, and the familiarity of a street take me back there.

This dish also reminds me of my neighbour from Salento. When my kids were kids were little, she used to knock on my door and bring me up dishes of things to try. She’d arrived from the south, I’d arrived from the north. I always like to think of it as our form of communion over food. She taught me possibvly more than anyone that you really don’t need a long list of ingredients to make good food. This is everyday eating around the kitchen table, food that feeds and sustains us, and especially when times may be difficult.

Today I made it for lunch. My friend from Puglia would say that you should cook the cauliflower with the pasta in a pan of boiling water. I actually cooked the cauliflower early this morning. The idea is that if I do it early I don’t get to lunchtime where I’m running off to pick up my kids and still wondering “what shall I give them?!!” Of course it doesn’t always happen, the early morning cooking. I’d hate this to pass as some kind of domestic bliss.

Today I made enough to have leftovers, but for a family of four, I would suggest the following:

One head of Romanesco cauliflower

350g short pasta

1 garlic clove

2 dried chillis

Extra virgin olive oil

Boil. or steam the cauliflower until it’s just cooked. In the meantime, put the water on for the pasta. You need about a litre for every 100g of pasta, so three and half litres for 350g.

Take a large frying pan and put in some extra virgin olive oil. Then peel the garlic. You can either chop it finely or leave it whole. The same applies for the chillis. I usually leave both garlic and chillis whole and just use them to add flavour, then take them out just before serving.

When the cauliflower is cooked, cut it down a bit into smaller pieces and add to the oil, garlic and chilli. Mix it around so that it really takes on all the flavours.

Salt the water for the pasta when it starts to boil. About two dessert spoons should do it. Don’t worry if it looks like a lot of salt. The pasta cooks in it, and it’s healthier than having insipid pasta to which you need to add salt later. Then cook the pasta according to the instructions on the packet. A word of advice: always taste the pasta before draining it. Sometimes cooking times can vary slightly, and you don’t want to end up with undercooked pasta because you didn’t taste it. Trust me, I’ve been there!

The pasta should be al dente, so still have a bite to it. I tend to drain my pasta really quickly so it still has some of the cooking water hanging around, which means that when you add the pasta to the sauce it will bind more easily. If you’re unsure, just take out a ladle of pasta water before you drain it, put it in a cup and add a bit if you see that it needs it to help it come together better.

When you’ve drained the pasta, add it to the cauliflower and mix it around for a couple of minutes so that the pasta really soaks up all those flavours. This is a pasta dish that doesn’t actually need cheese, but if you do want to add some grated cheese, pecorino is perfect.

Throw a couple of bowls of olives and maybe also cherry tomatoes on the table, and pretend you’re in Puglia at the masseria of your dreams.


It’s Friday afternoon and I’m making focaccine, or little focaccia as adding the diminutive ‘ino’ or in this case ‘ina’ makes it little. So these are little focaccia, although if you’re familiar with the true Ligurian focaccia, don’t expect that. These are more like mini pitta breads and taste like piadina rather than true focaccia which is the type that oozes olive oil and can only really be eaten in Liguria. If you ever go to Liguria, the first thing you need to find out is where you can buy the best focaccia. Trust me, the locals will know. They always do.

While true focaccia involves proving times and is not always as easy as it looks, focaccine are very easy, and before you know it you too will be rustling them up like a pro for that Friday night aperitivo. They’re literally child’s play, and I can testify to this because I have made them with children. They’re also cooked in minutes and you don’t need a whole list of ingredients either.

To make them you’ll need the following ingredients to get around twenty, although don’t quote me on that as when I counted them we’d already eaten a few. Also don’t forget to add salt. The first time I made these I did forget the salt as my kids pointed out rather vociferously. Teach kids to eat well and appreciate food, and you’ll have active food critics for life.


400g strong flour (in Italy we use farina 00, if you can find it)

200g soft ricotta, the fresh type that’s stored in the fridge and comes in a tub – this is what makes the focaccine so lovely and soft

140ml water at room temperature

50ml extra virgin olive oil

1 packet of fast action dried yeast (the ones I use are 15g)

Salt (and be generous or they will taste bland)

Place all the ingredients in a mixing bowl. You’ll need to sieve the flour before you do this, add the yeast and salt, then the ricotta and finally the oil and then the water. I always add the water last because you get more control over it. Start to mix it all together with a wooden spoon and then when it’s started to come together, put it on your kitchen worktop or table and knead it a bit with your hands. It won’t feel as strong as bread dough. This is softer and less elastic.

Then, get out your rolling pin and roll out the dough. You need to roll it out quite thin – just a couple of centimetres. After you’ve done this, get a glass and cut out circles. Bind all the leftover bits together and then roll out again, cut more circles and repeat until you’ve used all the dough. With the last bit of dough you can just shape and squash it into a circle with your hands.

Take a non-stick frying pan and pan lid, and without adding any oil, start to lay in the focaccine and then put the lid on the frying pan. You need to put the lid on as this will help them to cook. Also, cook them on a fairly low heat or they’ll burn on the bottom before they’re ready. Leave them for a couple of minutes and then turn them over. Put the lid back on and leave for a further few minutes. If you want to test whether they’re done, just take one out and pull a bit off and take a look inside. If it looks ‘bready,’ then it’s cooked. As you take the cooked focaccine out of the pan, you can put them on a metal tray to cool.

Although believe me, these are utterly divine straight out of the pan still warm with a slice of Parma ham on top. Serve for aperitivo, or even better add a couple of pizzas, a few dishes of olives, cherry tomatoes and crisps and other various things you fancy and call it apericena. Apericena is a cross between aperitivo and dinner meaning that you can sit back, relax, feeling suitably virtuous about your freshly home-cooked focaccine, and enjoy your evening.

Dream of Italy.

Memories will be made of meatballs

A friend asked me for the recipe for my meatballs. “How do you make yours?” she asked. “I love to hear how other people make them.”

Good question. My meatballs are generally recipe-less. They’re usually a mix of the meat I’ve bought and what I have in the fridge. The other day I made them with about half a kilo of Italian sausage meat, some finely chopped thyme, leftover pecorino (a smallish chunk that I blitzed in the food processor) and the usual tomato passata. A note about tomato passata. Once you’ve tried it, you may never go back to tinned tomatoes.

A friend’s Tuscan mother swears by tomato passata and won’t use anything else. It makes for a richer sauce, although naturally it has to be good quality Italian passata, as some passatas are better than others. I now have a tomato passata fetish that consists of various bottles of various types all lined up in the cupboard. The only passatas I draw the line at is the ones where they add the herbs. Don’t. Add them fresh yourself.

Today I had three boys for lunch. “Shall I make meatballs with pasta?” The response was an unanimous yes. So today’s version was about 300g of beef with 400g of Italian sausage, and some semi hard goat’s cheese that got thrown into the mixture and oozed lazily out into the sauce on cooking. I’d also added a softly browned leek, some parsley and chives chopped up using a mezzaluna to make their presence as least obvious as possible because that’s generally what you end up doing with kids. Oh, and some breadcrumbs. And for breadcrumbs I mean four slices of common or garden white sliced bread that were also blitzed and added to the mixture.

In the meantime I heated up my jar of tomato passata with a good slug of olive oil. Normally I put in a touch of onion soffrito, sometimes also a finely chopped carrot but  today I didn’t have any onions or carrots, hence the leeks in the meatballs. Besides, in this way, my kids would actually eat leeks.

“Do you like the meatballs, boys?”

“They’re okay.” Okay?

“They’ve got a funny taste.”

So that’ll be the leeks.

I write this as I have the rest of the meatballs simmering away with another jar of passata, slug of olive oil, a couple of meatballs and some borlotti beans thrown in for good measure. All to be eaten with my husband when I manage to get the kids in bed at a reasonable time, and we sit on the sofa watching our favourite programmes on the Italian cookery channel Gambero Rosso. Some couples watch Netflix, me and my husband watch cookery programmes and have done for as long as I can remember. There’s a TV chef called Giorgone (Giorgio Barchiesi) who believes in true rustic Italian food including lard. His recipes are the type of things I want to eat. As for the borlotti beans, they remind me of Tuscany and Umbria and places like that, and last weekend we were in Arezzo and I was eating beans on bruschetta.

A word about the photo of the little hand and meatballs. Simply because one day little hands will have grown into big hands, and meatballs will have become a memory.

Pesto(ish) for a rainy day

So after Spring made a very brief appearance, in particular yesterday which gave us a day in which we all breathed a sigh of relief from the awful weather we seem to be having recently, today it is cold, grey, raining and utterly miserable. Burian 2 is on its way, or the beast from the east is making a comeback, as they call it in the UK. It’s the kind of day where the only real option is to just stay at home and stay in our pyjamas, hence the Saturday morning cooking.

Not that there was actually that much cooking involved. Today I made pesto with a handful of parsley that I’ve recently planted on the balcony. Pesto literally means made with a pestello or pestle. It’s one of those things that might sound complicated but is actually ridiculously easy. Once you’ve made it you’ll never want to buy the supermarket stuff again.

In this case though I used a hand-held blender.  I blitzed the handful of parsley that I’d cut up with scissors beforehand with half a large garlic clove, about 50g of ready-peeled almonds and added a good slug of olive oil, enough to coat the pasta smoothly rather than clog it up. I then mixed in a couple of tablespoonfuls of finely grated pecorino romano or, to be more accurate, I put the cheese in a mini blitzer that does this in seconds.

If you do blitz it, resist the temptation to do it too finely. I personally prefer it when it’s got more texture to it. And do taste as you go along. If you fancy a bit more cheese, add it. If you want to mix in a few more ground almonds at the end, do. And if you don’t happen to have any pecorino romano sitting in your fridge, use parmesan or any other hard cheese. My neighbour is an amazing cook who lives to the rule that she would never go to the shop just for one ingredient, so don’t feel you have to either. She just substitutes with anything suitable she has in her fridge, and experiments.

Besides, this isn’t the real pesto. You have to go to Liguria for that. Ligurian pesto is made with basil that’s grown on the sunny shores there, and if you were to suggest to anyone who lives there that this were called pesto they would object, and rightly so. Ligurian pesto is food of the gods. I know this every time I’ve eaten it there. I once ate it at a friend’s vineyard. Her grandmother had made it, and I was presented with a dish of gnocchi swimming in the most heavenly pesto I have ever tasted. No, this is not pesto. This is pesto(ish). So please do not consider calling it pesto. A final word about salt. I personally don’t add salt as I think the pecorino has enough flavour, but this is up to you.

Mix your pesto in with some rigatoni you’ve cooked in the meantime. Keep about a third of a cup of the cooking water as you’ll need this to help it bind. Add the water very gradually and mix as you go along, as the last thing you want is watery pasta. You could also use any long pasta such as spaghetti or linguine but I’d run out so it was rigatoni instead. Sprinkle with ground almonds and more grated pecorino romano, a generous twist of ground black pepper, and lunch is served.

Dream of sunshine and Ligurian villages where you can eat the real thing.