Pasta & Rice

Butter and Anchovies Two Ways


The truth is, I am not a butter eater. In front of a loaf just out of the oven, I will reach for peppery olive oil and flaky salt. Butter can sit in my fridge, ignored, for months, until the baking itch attacks.

But since our last trip to Rome – where I ate my weight in gluten and dairy – I have been using that packet of butter surprisingly often. It was either melted into a puddle, mingled with anchovies and used to season pasta. Or eased in thin yet un-spread layers over toasted bread, and covered with whole, plump anchovies only seconds before the first bite. And anyway, as hazardous as this combination might sound, they are actually the perfect match – a classic case of opposites that attract each other.

Burro e alici (butter and anchovies) is a traditional Roman dish of poor origins, combining all the main nutrients in one simple and filling dish: fat from butter, proteins from the fish, and carbs from the bread or pasta. Cucina povera at its finest.

The bruschette are a very nice and quick option for aperitivo, especially if last minute. I like the butter to be in shavings that melt on their own over the warm bread, and whole anchovies for texture.

The pasta is not for the faint of heart, but I made it for an enthusiastic American who thought anchovies were the enemy only a couple of years ago. It has a strong, stubborn attitude, and attacks your nose with its fishy notes before you even taste the first forkful; but the sweetness of the butter will there, waiting to reward the brave hearts with its deeply satisfying lusciousness.

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Orecchiette with Cime di Rapa

orecchiette cime di rapa - life love food

We landed in Bari on a Saturday in September, past dinner time. We had spent the day – the week even – in anticipation, thinking about our first meal in Puglia, perhaps outside on a terrace, with the air still balmy and the white wine well chilled. We both needed this weekend away so desperately. Not because of London per se the weather had been particularly lovely lately. But we were restless and exhausted. We needed a few days of that lifestyle we both adore and miss so much: easy, slow and warm.

The little flat we had booked looked promising from the listing – bright, new and with a rooftop overlooking the roofs of Polignano. We had decided not to rent a car but to walk everywhere instead, so our host offered to pick us up at the airport. His name was Paolo.

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Fig Pecorino Risotto

How many things have I taken for granted in my life? Things that were just there, without shouting their presence, but whose absence I would have immediately noticed. Things that now are not here, and I miss, or simply, I see from a different perspective.

Take parents, for example. I lived with them for 19 years, and even after I left, I was seeing them regularly, every two weeks. It took a good dose of miles and one-hour time difference to make me feel distant and achy for more of their presence in my life. Take, as a second example, walking to class, or to work. Seeing it in retrospective, it was such a luxury! If I knew what was awaiting me in terms of commute, I would have savoured every step from my little apartment in Bra to the office, or from my room in Padova to the various class locations – all easily reachable by bike.

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Pasta alla Gricia

Up until recent times, January has never been the month of diets and cleanses, at least not in Italy. There were no concerns about being fit or losing weight. Rather, the biggest concern was to keep the family fed, and warm.

In Italy, January used to be the month in which people consumed the largest quantities of pork-based product. Rearing pigs was a common practice among farming families. This is because pigs were the most convenient animals to keep: they would eat anything and, likewise, they could be eaten nose to tail. They basically made a good investment.

Pigs were traditionally butchered in winter, usually from December to mid-February, as the butchering operations needed to be carried on at low temperature. In addition, the freshly cured meats would benefit from the cold for both drying and preserving. Mind, not all cuts were turned into cured meats. Some were eaten straight away – braised, fried, roasted etc. However, curing (and therefore preserving) most of the animal meat meant having enough to eat for the rest of the year.

Among the many excellent types of cured meat belonging to the Italian tradition,  guanciale is one of my favourites. Typical of Central Italy, guanciale is made from the cheek of the pig, a cut that is mainly made of fat, with only one or two thin stripes of lean muscle. The composition of the fat is different from the fat found elsewhere. It’s tougher and it has a more intense flavour. The generous salting and spicing all contribute to the unique taste of this product, as well as the wood-fire smoking.

Perhaps the most famous guanciale comes from the town of Amatrice, located on the border between Lazio and Abruzzo. Amatriciana is a pasta dish that was concocted in the area around the end of the 18th century and featuring tomatoes, guanciale, and pecorino. It was the dish of the transhumant shepherds moving from Amatrice towards Rome to sell their products.

The origin of the dish, however, dates further back in time, before the discovery of the Amaricas, with the sole difference that it didn’t have any tomatoes in it – only guanciale, pecorino, and black pepper. The name of this humble pasta dish was (and still is) gricia, from Griciano, another village not far from Amatrice.

Gricia is a dish that is telling of the lives people run in the area in which it originated. Shepherding needed energetic meals, while the nomadic lifestyle required foods that didn’t spoil too quickly. But the true fame of gricia came when it started to be cooked and consumed around Rome.

Making gricia at home isn’t difficult. All you need is the right set of ingredients and some practice, so as to master the art of melting the cheese in the pasta water to form the most perfect of sauces.

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Bigoli in Salsa

bigoi-in-salsa

 

Few things feel more festive to me (as to most Venetians) than bìgoli in salsa. As strange as this might sound, this poor, anchovy- and onion-based pasta dish is hands down the most popular Venetian Christmas Eve’s first course. A big classic in the cuisine of Veneto, bìgoli in salsa used to be enjoyed on giorni di magro (fasting days) such as Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and Christmas Eve. Nowadays, you can find all year round in traditional osterie and local restaurants all over the region. However, it remains very much linked to fasting days in the local tradition.

Context. Bìgoli is a type of thick, fresh spaghetti that is originally from Veneto. Their origin seems to date back to the 1600s, when the whole region was under the domain of la Serenissima. A pasta maker from Padova designed and patented a machinery (called bigolaro) apt to make different shapes of pasta. Among them, thick bìgoli gained people’s preference, and fast became the signature pasta shape of the Venetian republic.

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