As I write this, there's the sound of a bowl being enthusiastically licked across the floor by the dog. I've just finished a most satisfactory lunch, from a made-up recipe, and I'm calling it a success. (Toby seconds the motion).
Recently, James and I have been reading the Inspector Montalbano books (and reading aloud the good bits to Toby). Ross recommended them last year, in Italy, and when in the UK we dipped into his collection -- the English ones, that is. The Montalbano detective stories are written by Andrea Camilleri and set in Sicily -- a sort of metaphorical Sicily of beaches and food, twisted government contracts, equally twisted construction and roads, and mafia activity. They have been appearing in translation over the last several years, and we highly recommend them for Dashiel Hammet--meets Maigret--meets Lindsey Davis' Falco. And the food is inspiring.
Today, Sunday of the long weekend, I've been lounging on the sofa with a faithful hound snoring at my feet, reading The Terracotta Dog. Like I said, I read the good bits out loud for Toby, especially the bits with the beautiful dog in them. (He thinks Inspector Rex is dull.) Outside it's grey and damp: winter started this week.
If you've read any of these novels, you'll know that an important feature of Montalbano's character is his reaction to food. Food that brings a great sense of well-being. (Sound familiar?) While I'm unlikely to go racing after mafia contacts on blasted Sicilian outcrops, I am completely alongside the idea that good cooking makes the world a clearer, better place.
So, up I hopped. A beef stew, aromatic with orange peel, thyme and red wine, now simmers in the oven. Beetroots from the market, round and dark and the size of a small fist (after all, winter has only just begun) are roasting in their skins, carefully wrapped in foil to keep in the steam. Beetroot: that's about as bloody as it gets around here. I've been pulling beautiful radishes from the big black pot in the garden (I'm also growing spinach). And I looked at the lovely red beetroot stems I'd cut off, and I thought;
'Hm, I wonder what I could make with these? What would Montalbano's cadre of Sicilian chefs do?'
Down comes the big fat Italian cookbook. Mmm. Beetroot in bechamel. Beetroot salad. Beetroot with onions. Beetroot with anchovies - um-huh, mm, yes, that's it!
So my recipe is based on the recipe in The Silver Spoon, but is totally different, if you see what I mean.
- Rinse the beetroot stems (tops) carefully to remove all grit. Keep the few tiny baby leaves and discard any tough, brown or broken bits.
- Set a pan of water to boil, with a steamer on top. Meanwhile, finely chop one schallot and saute it in a generous glug of olive oil (out 3 tablespoons) over medium heat.
- Pop the beetroot stems in to steam.
- When the schallot is starting to soften, scoop out two anchovy fillets from a good quality (not that horrible dry pasty crap) little Italian jar of anchovy fillets in oil. Chop them roughly and add to the schallot. Cook slowly, stirring occasionally - I think it was about 8-10 minutes. I didn't check.
- By now your beetroot tops will be wilted and hot. Transfer them to the frying pan, using tongs. Toss and stir and fry it all together for another 2 minutes. Check the seasoning and add lots of black pepper.
- Finally, put it all in your big, flat bowl and add a squeeze of fresh orange juice and a tiny dollop of sweet butter. Lunch is ready!
I quartered the orange that I had zested for the beef stew, and had delicious cold orange quarters in between bites of warm, tangy beetroot tops*. Divine.
Now it's pouring with rain, and I'm thinking, a cup of coffee, a small glass of red wine, and a piece of dark chocolate would go down perfectly well at 2:30 on a cold Sunday afternoon.
Yeah. We love Italian food. We agree with Montalbano that food makes the world a better place. And we really love holiday weekends.
* PS If you are silly about anchovies, having only had dried curls of salty sea-turd on pizzas, I half forgive you, but I implore you to take yourself to your nearest good Italian grocery, get a tiny jar of a reputable brand in OIL, chop them and fry them with onions until they melt and almost disappear, and prepare to be converted.
If you don't, there's no hope for you. (so there. Food rant over.)