Sunday, 16 January 2011

A Roman Feast

My favourite holiday of all time is our trip to Rome. One week in Rome and I was sold. That was about 18 months ago and I NEED to go back. There’s the sights, the culture and the people, but best of all there’s the Food and Wine. 

When we go on holiday, I plan. I don’t do itineraries, but I like to have an idea of what we want to do, and  I'll have a few restaurants in mind so that we’re not wandering around aimlessly when we get there. Before going to Rome, I bought David Downie’s ‘Food Wine Rome’ and this was our bible for the trip. Honestly, it is the best guidebook I have ever set my eyes on. If you’re a foodie and about to go to Rome, then you MUST buy this book. It taught me a lot about traditional Roman food which then helped me to develop an understanding of the culture of the Roman people. When in Rome and all that!

When we came back I wanted to cook Roman food at home and I found out that David Downie had written ‘Cooking the Roman Way’ and was determined to get it. However, it must be a pretty rare book as it was so damn expensive and is still listed at Amazon for about £50! Luckily, one day I spotted it second hand for about £6/7 which was far more manageable. A kindle edition is shortly to be released and that too is at a more manageable price of £16.58 and I’d recommend it to anyone with an interest in Roman food.

On Friday I wanted to give the whole Roman meal thing a go. You know, the whole four courses and this is what I did……

Antipasti: Tomato and Mozzarella Salad
So as there were a few courses, I wanted to start with something light and fresh. This dish is so simple, so I thought it was important to get the right ingredients. I didn't have time to trek to an Italian deli, and in any case I'm not even that sure where I would go, so I went to Waitrose. I picked out some ripe tomatoes that actually smelt of tomatoes and I shunned the Aldi packets of Mozzarella preferring the look of this. It was a good choice. I've never really spent money on mozzarella before, I always thought it was a pretty dull cheese, but this stuff is good. It’s still mild but very creamy. To prepare, I just sliced everything up, arranged on side plates and dotted a bit of pesto around. Simple, light and refreshing.  

Tomato and Mozzarella salad
Primi: Carbonara
Carbonara is my favourite pasta dish and since eating it at Da Enzo in Rome (where I learnt that al dente means to leave a white line in the pasta when you bite into it, like this) I have learnt how to cook it Roman style. No cream, no onion and no garlic. It’s incredibly easy and quick to make.

450g pasta (whatever you want really, I used a Rigatoni type pasta)
140g diced pancetta
60g grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
60g grated Pecorino Romano (kind of a Roman Parmesan cheese made with sheep’s milk)
5 large egg yolks
1 large egg
olive oil
salt & pepper
Serves 6 

I prepared the sauce in advance. I whisked up the egg yolks and the whole egg with both cheeses in a large bowl and seasoned it. I then left it out to get to room temperature and just before serving I boiled the pasta (to get it al dente you probably want to do it for half the time stated on the packet – 7 minutes is generally about right) and fried off the pancetta in olive oil. You now need to work very quickly. Pasta done, I drained it and mixed some of it into the frying pan with the cooked pancetta to coat it in the juices. Then I quickly mixed all the hot pasta and pancetta into the egg and cheese mixture. The heat of the pasta and pancetta will cook the egg. Trust me. It works. Just keep mixing until the egg mixture coats all the pasta. It then needs to be served immediately.

Unfortunately, on this occasion, I had overcooked the pasta. Al dente it was not. Thankfully, no one seemed to care! The sauce was gorgeous. Eggs, salty cheese and pancetta works. It’s hard to believe that there isn't any cream in there, as the egg mixture coats each piece of pasta perfectly. 

I actually didn't use the Roman cook book for this recipe as David Downie pours the egg mixture into the hot frying pan to mix with the pasta and pancetta and I think the risk of scrambling the eggs would be too high. Instead I used a recipe I came across a while ago. It's by some guy called Daziano who's got a blog on Italian food, it's a good source for a few Italian recipes, take a look.

Secondi: Saltimbocca alla Romana
Veal is a difficult one isn't it?  It doesn't sit well with us and demand for it in Britain is very low. Well, it shouldn't be an issue for us any more as British veal is a actually very ethical food stuff to eat now. Welfare standards have improved and regulations provide for each calf to have bedding, more space and a better diet. Furthermore veal is a by-product of the milk industry. Cattle are encouraged to fall pregnant to bring on their milk. Unfortunately most of the male calves are not required by the farmers (as they can’t produce milk and their meat is considered poor). These calves are then either killed shortly after birth or raised for veal in Europe (where welfare standards are not satisfactory - think cramped conditions and a milk only diet). However, the odd lucky few will be raised for veal in Britain. Rose veal is the British version and it has a light pink colour because of the addition of fibre and iron in the diets, and also the access to sunlight (again something they would not have in Europe). So don’t shun British veal. The more British veal we eat, the fewer cattle will be exported.

Anyway onto the recipe. This one is from David Downie’s book. 

8 thin veal scallops, pounded
8 sage leaves, washed
parma ham
olive oil
100 mls dry white wine
Serves 4

I took the scallops, layered with a piece of the ham and put a piece of the sage in the middle as below.

The layers
I then rolled the scallops up and pinned everything together with a toothpick.  I then just left them in the fridge to be cooked later.

Finished rolls
To cook I heated some oil in a large frying pan and fried the rolls for about 5 minutes on a medium heat. Then I poured in the wine and cooked through for about another 5 minutes. When done, I removed the toothpicks and served with some of the pan juices drizzled over. I also served garlic and rosemary roasted new potatoes and a rocket salad.

The combination of the veal with the parma ham and the sage works. In fact saltimbocca means ‘jump in your mouth’ and they were that good! If you’re not up to giving veal a go then you could use chicken or turkey scallops instead.

Dolce: Ciambelline Col Vino

Wine-dunking cookies are another Roman speciality. We first had them at Trattoria da Alfredo e Ada which is a very sweet little restaurant in Rome. Alfredo died some time ago, but his wife, Ada, still carries on in the kitchen. There are no menus, no wine lists and you are simply asked which of the two options available for starter and main you would like. Wine is red or white and it is produced in the family’s own small vineyard.  Dessert, as you have probably guessed, is always wine-dunking cookies and thanks to David Downie’s book I can now have these at home.

300g all-purpose flour
150g sugar
Large pinch of cinnamon
90mls olive oil
90mls dry white wine

I preheated the oven to 190C and greased and floured a couple of baking sheets. Then I just mixed together the flour, sugar and cinnamon, poured in the wine and kneaded for about 7 minutes. I then tipped the dough out onto a floured work surface and kneaded for a couple more minutes. To shape the cookies, I broke off bits of the mixture and rolled them between my floured hands, formed rings, and placed onto the prepared baking sheets. 15 minutes in the oven and they’re done. They come out hard so you can transfer them to a cooling rack straight away.

Wine-Dunking Cookies
After 3 courses, I, and my guests, would have been over-faced by a full on dessert, so these little cookies were perfect. We dunked them in red wine, but they work equally well with white or sweet wine. They’re really crunchy and, bizarrely, they taste a little of almonds. They’re fantastic little things. Not only are they incredibly simple to make (although the dough is VERY sticky and I managed to get it smeared all over the kitchen) and delicious, they are a perfect excuse to top up the wine glasses!  

So there we go, a true Roman feast. Obviously not as good as the real thing, but it’s probably the closest I'm gonna get to Roman food this year! Everything was really simple to cook and I spent very little time slaving over a hot stove. 

So what’s you favourite Italian dish?  Pizza?  Pasta?  A good steak or some seafood? 


  1. Excellent blog Clare. Takes me back to Da Enzo - thank you for that recommendation! I missed out on the cookies though. Maybe all that kneading will save me some time at the gym?

  2. Cheers Kevin. You're welcome for the recommendation - you know it's my favourite subject! Give the cookies a go - they're pretty good. Not too sure making and eating cookies could ever save time at the gym though!