Agretti: Seasonal Treats (Spaghetti con agretti e gamberi)

agrettiAppeared earlier in Romeing.

One of the most exciting things of life in Rome for me is the neat distinction between produce seasons. That eagerly anticipated day when, finally, the Roman artichoke makes its arrival, or the leafy greens that disappear at your greengrocer’s overnight.

My heart jumps when I see agretti at the market early spring. They are also called Barba di Frate (monk’s beard), because supposedly it was the Capuchin friars who started cultivating them. And they had green beards. Or so the vegetable legend goes.

Agretti are salty-tasting, grassy greens that grow only in coastal areas. In Italy, they are cultivated mostly in Tuscany and Lazio. The season is ultra-short, they are available a little more than a month in the spring.

Cleaning agretti is a pain, but once you manage to get all the dirt off, they are ready in a flash. Some people eat them raw, but I prefer to eat them slightly cooked or steamed with a good glug of olive oil and a splash of lemon. Since their taste is a bit salty, not unlike samphire, but milder, I decided to pair the vegetable with seafood in an extremely simple, but surprisingly good pasta dish.


Ready for the nuthouse (Olive Ascolane)

Frying Olive AscolaneAppeared earlier in Romeing.

Sewing your own clothes. Canning your own vegetables. Building your own furniture. All activities in the ‘why-on-earth-would-you’ realm. A lot of blood, sweat and tears just to proudly call something homemade. But really, is homemade always so much better than store-bought? One glance at that sweater your aunt gave you for Christmas and you know the answer.

So please be forewarned when you decide to make olive ascolane. After an entire afternoon spent on making these stuffed and deep-fried olives, I was ready for the nuthouse. Granted, the result was magical. But how could it not have been? Hello! Chunky olives, different meats, cheese,  and…deep-fried!

The olives are originally from Ascoli Piceno, a province in the Marche region. They are now on pizzeria and trattoria menus in Central Italy – including Rome. Served as an antipasto, they are perfect to take the edge off your hunger. But after my endeavor I will never again gobble up these olives when they arrive at the table. Instead, I’ll savor them. In fact, that might be the whole purpose of DIY – you experience how much effort goes into making (artisanal) items, so you’ll give them the attention they deserve. Yes, that’s even true for the funky sweater!

Olive Ascolane

Pranzo di Natale (Cappelletti in brodo)

This article appeared earlier in Romeing

A few Christmases ago, I was invited to a pranzo di Natale. The event of the year for many Italian families, it was an honor to join this typical Christmas lunch. Picture three generations of a large extended family gathered at the table (plus me), getting increasingly louder and more cheerful, and slowly eating themselves in a food coma. Boy, I imagined I was going to eat a lot, but the grand total of food served (and eaten!) was truly astonishing. Italians invariably complain that the amount of food at celebrations is too much, yet without heaps and heaps of food a party just isn’t a party. In this sense Italians are definitely my kind of people.

One must-serve course at the Christmas lunch table is cappelletti in brodo (‘little hats’ in a meaty, clear broth). Even though cappelletti are originally from Emilia-Romagna, you’ll see them at many Roman holiday tables too. They are tiny pasta cushions stuffed with a mixture of ground meats and a pinch of Parmigiano. The store-bought version is widely accepted, since cappelletti require a maddening patience only nonnas still seem to have.

And then the broth. Seemingly simple, it takes actually quite some time to get the flavor just right. After the soup is served, the boiled meats that went into the brodo are served separately.

In Dutch Herring Heaven (Herring Tartar)

A version of this blog post appeared earlier on the blog Novel Adventurers.

It’s definitely an expat thing. That specific craving for a motherland food that hits you at the most random times. On home visits, the first thing you do once you get off the plane is to immediately gorge on that long-missed item. I have American friends who O.D. on hamburgers back in the States, Mexican friends who put away as much fresh guacamole as they can hold and French friends who have buttery croissants for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

For me that food is herring. A silvery, oily delight that just doesn’t travel at all. And although the fish is ubiquitous in Germany and Scandinavian countries as well, the Dutch variety – raw, sort of – makes for one of the best treats in the world. Especially eaten the Dutch way: you grab the little monster by its tail, dip it into some raw onions and scarf it down, tilting your head back. The mere sight makes foreigners’ eyes pop out.

The Dutch have been eating herring for some 1000 years. Back in those days, only seafarers’ towns near the North Sea had the pleasure of eating haring, though, because the fish spoiled easily and quickly. After a process called haringkaken (gibbing) was introduced in the 14th century, herring became known in other parts of the Netherlands as well. Gibbing involved removing the gills and part of the gullet to eliminate the bitter taste. It was still heavily salted back then.

Nowadays, the fish is cleaned except for the liver and pancreas that release enzymes for flavor, then frozen so nasty bacteria don’t stand a chance. Finally, it’s brined in a slightly salty solution. This process of ‘sousing’ makes the fish incredibly tender and mild.

Early June is an exciting time. The Hollandse nieuwe (new Dutch fatty herring that has reached the appropriate size for consumption) is announced with a bang. On Vlaggetjesdag (Flag Day) at the end of May, a herring boat race announces the new season. Then, out of nowhere, red, white, and blue stalls pop up to brighten Dutch streets. There, the herring is extracted from the ice on order and further cleaned. When you’ve polished off your fish, napkins, lemon water and breath mints are at your disposal (you’ll need them). It’s quick, healthy, and delicious.

Some of my Italian acquaintances tend to make fun of Dutch cuisine, which, they claim, is non-existent. ‘What do you eat’, they rhetorically ask me, ‘Ah yes, bread and unsalted potatoes. You poor people.’ While I never doubt the Greatness of All Things Italian (God forbid!), I wish I could drag them to the herring stalls. But then again, those same acquaintances are not particularly known for their adventurous eating outings. Too bad for them!

What marathon training taught me (oatmeal-peanut butter balls)

‘If I don’t run, I don’t feel like me.’

‘Without my daily runs, I get anxious and jittery.’

‘Running keeps me sane.’


If you’ve ever spent time with those annoying running addicts, you’ve probably heard it all. Confession: I’m one of them. And all of the above applies to me, too.

Aside from the obvious physical benefits (and occasional discomfort), running offers me even more mental advantages. A good run disentangles thoughts and calms down. Something I’d get worked up about suddenly seems trivial after a good jog.

I’ve been running for the past 10+ years, but I don’t know what got into me lately. Somehow I find myself training for my second marathon. After the Rotterdam edition last year, apparently it’s time for the Rome one. Different course, different sights, same distance (42,2 km/26-ish miles), albeit with significantly more hills.

There’s running and there’s marathoning. Two extremely different things, I found out when I was training in the dreary Dutch winter last year. I learnt how to listen to and trust my body, that it is so, so much stronger than I ever thought possible.

But, by far the most valuable lesson from marathon training: It’s all about the journey.

That sounds trite, I know, but it’s just true. If I picture the entire course that’s still ahead until I reach home or worse, if I picture myself already being home with some hot chocolate, the run will take forever. I will get bored, hungry, and cold. If I instead decide to focus on the surroundings (such as the magnificent tree-and-ruin-lined Via Appia Antica), the sun, my favorite running songs, and my wandering thoughts, I’ll have a ball.

For a goal-oriented person like me, this is quite challenging. In life I’m always planning the next adventure, eager to find out what’s next. Finishing the marathon is the ultimate goal, of course, but in the mean time it’s good to enjoy every single one of those 42,2 kilometers.

Oatmeal-peanut butter balls

Makes about 20 balls

Kitchen corpses (Empanadas de carne)

Kitchen corpses. If you love to cook, you’ll be likely to have a few (too many) of them. You know, those utterly useless machines clogging cabinets and those ‘handy’ utensils always jamming drawers. After every birthday party, you can add a few more precious items to the museum of kitchen futilities. Egg slicers, chocolate fountains, apple corers, pop art toasters or those cutesy corn-shaped skewers for eating the real thing on the cob….basta!

For one of these gadgets I’ll happily make an exception: my empanada maker. To make empanadas, the popular Southern-American pastries, you don’t even need this plastic tool. Latin ladies crank out perfectly shaped half-moons in a flash. And a bit of a rustic look is actually a pro for the home cook. But the thing is, if I don’t grant this empanada maker some precious storage space, I’ll forget to make them. Every time it comes tumbling out of the cabinet when I reach for something else, my friends are in for a treat!

Empanadas de carne

Makes about 8 large empanadas

These empanadas are my take on the traditional Argentinean/Chilean pastries. The dough is supple, not too flaky. It’s a tad bit sweet, which contrasts nicely with the spicy-sweet stuffing. A hearty winter snack!

For the dough:

  • 1 egg yolk
  • ½ cup water
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 3 tablespoons vegetable shortening (or okay, margarine)
  • 2.5 cups of flour (300 grams)
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon sugar

For the filling:

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 1 carrot, finely diced
  • 2 small dried chillies (no seeds, finely chopped)
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon cumin
  • ¼ teaspoon mild paprika powder
  • pinch of ground cloves
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 400 grams ground meat (I asked my butcher for a 50% pork, 50% beef mix)
  • 3 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 3 tablespoons raisins
  • splash of white wine vinegar (no more than 1 teaspoon)

Mix the egg yolk and water with a fork until blended.

With your hands (because you don’t own a hand mixer with dough hooks!) work the butter and vegetable shortening into the (sifted) flour, into which you’ve added the salt and sugar.

Add a little bit of the egg mixture and start kneading. Keep adding small amounts of the mixture and keep kneading until you have a supple, smooth dough. If it’s too sticky, add some flour. Shape the dough into a ball, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.

For the filling, heat the oil and sauté the onion for a few minutes over medium heat until transparent. Add the carrots and sauté for another 2-3 minutes. Add the spices, keep stirring, and add the meat. Stir! When the meat is done, add the tomato paste, raisins and vinegar, mix everything, lower the heat and let simmer for another 10 minutes. If the mixture is too dry, add a spoon of water.

Preheat the oven to 200 °C (375 °F).

Use a rolling pin to roll out the dough until about 3 mm thick (0.12 inches). Cut out circles a bit bigger than the tool’s surface when open. Place the dough on the surface, add a few spoons of the meat mix onto one half (not too much!), close and press well. Scrape off excess dough with a knife, open the form and gently place pastry on a parchment paper-lined baking dish. With a fork, prick a few holes in them. Brush the top with a bit of egg yolk and bake the empanadas about 20 minutes until golden. Let them cool on a rack and serve warm or at room temperature.

Another few beautiful pictures by Luis Herrera!

Entranced at Cuckoo’s (Handi gosht)

When my friend Katie Parla asked me about my best bite of 2011 I had to think hard. There were so many! Kaymak in Istanbul, momo’s in Kathmandu, gnocchi all’amatriciana in Rome, my mom’s hare stew in Rotterdam. But, there was only one restaurant experience that really stood out: Cuckoo’s Den in Lahore, Pakistan.

Pakistan is not your average tourist destination, I know. Unless you have a reason to visit (I went for Children of Tomorrow, the education organization I volunteer for), western governments discourage visiting the country at this point in time. That’s unfortunate, because from what I’ve seen during two visits the landscapes are unique, the people most hospitable and the food just a-ma-zing. Pakistanis are true masters of barbecue and grill entire slabs of meat to sheer perfection.

The beautiful old city Lahore is known as the food capital of Pakistan, ever since the era of the Mughals. Here, all discussions sooner or later arrive at: ‘What are we eating? And when? ‘Food is the only real entertainment we have these days’, my host told me. He and his wife took me to Cuckoo’s Den. This famous restaurant is in the red light district of old Lahore (yes, Lahore has a red light district, Heera Mandi. Read more on it here). The owner is an artist, whose mother was a prostitute. Painted portraits of local women line the walls at the entrance. As you climb up three flights of steep marble stairs, encountering more objets d’art, dark carved wood and old tiles, the smell of grilled meat intensifies.

When we reached the rooftop, it left me speechless. Dimly lit by only a few bulbs that give the wafts of smoke a mystical air, the rooftop is a museum of curiosities. Roman busts mixed with carved elephants, mixed with buddha’s and ornaments. And, from any one of the wobbly tables you have a view on the majestic Badshahi Mosque.

The funny thing is, I don’t even remember the food all that well. I know it was good, very good indeed, especially the handi gosht (mutton stew). But in this ambiance, sitting outside in the sweltering Lahore air, you could’ve served me anything. I was under Cuckoo’s spell.

Handi Gosht (Pakistani mutton stew)


Delicious superstitions (Speck-wrapped salmon in pomegranate sauce)

A few years ago I’d easily walk under ladders, didn’t freak out when I accidentally crossed glasses when toasting and when I spilled some salt well, I just cleaned it up. But here in Italy, where superstitions run rife, I’ve noticed some changes in my behavior.

Not that I suddenly started to believe in supernatural causation after I do or don’t do something. I find myths and old wives’ tales highly amusing, but my no-nonsense nature prevents me from finding any consolation in them. However, I hate to step on toes, especially since I’m a minority. I decided to learn about the most common superstitions when my umbrella almost (by accident!) opened in a bar and I got yelled at. Rome blogger Eleonora Baldwin gave a great introduction a while ago, but I keep hearing new things every day. Who knew hearing a cat sneeze brings good luck!

Actually, if something is supposed to bring good luck, I’m all for it now, especially food-wise. If it doesn’t help, it doesn’t hurt and at least I ate well! Last week at the market an elderly signora told me pomegranates are supposed to be on the holiday table as they bring good luck. I knew they were considered lucky in Turkish culture (the seeds represent prosperity and money), but in Italian too? After a quick search I discovered this ancient fruit symbolizes long life, eternal youth, fertility, offspring and luck in love.

Wow, good thing I love to cook with pomegranates. They will be on the new year’s table together with the mandatory lenticchie con cotechino (lentils with traditional pork sausage) bringing money and good fortune, so we got everything covered for the new year ahead. Happy 2012 everyone!

Speck-wrapped salmon in pomegranate sauce

I meant to use bacon or thinly sliced smoked pancetta for this recipe, but when I couldn’t find that I decided to go for the nothern Italian speck. It’s nice and smoky, and has enough saltiness to balance out the sweetness of the sauce.

  • 1 decent-size salmon slice per person
  • 2-3 thin slices of speck, pancetta or bacon per salmon slice

For the sauce:

  • 4-5 tablespoons pomegranate molasses (look for Turkish ‘nar ekşisi’ or Iranian ‘Rob-e Anar’)
  • Seeds of 1 pomegranate
  • Pinch of chilli pepper
  • Salt to taste

Preheat the oven to 180 °C (350 °F).

Lightly wrap every piece of salmon in 2-3 slices of speck. Heat olive oil and sauté every slice carefully over high heat for 4-5 minutes on each side. Place in a baking pan, cover with tin foil and bake in the oven for 10-15 minutes.

Add the pomegranate molasses to the sauté pan. Stir over high heat, add a couple of spoons of water, a pinch of chilli pepper and salt and about half of the pomegranate seeds. Let it reduce to a velvety sauce. Reduce heat, add the rest of the pomegranate seeds (keep a few on the side), add the salmon and warm for another 2-3 minutes. Serve on heated plates and sprinkle with remaining seeds.

Picture: stock xchange (pomegranate) and Luis Herrera (salmon dish)

The non-Italian food club (Mole duranguense)

What is that trick our minds play that we always crave what we can’t have? In Rome, food lovers’ paradise, I keep finding myself on the lookout for great non-Italian food. And I’m not the only one.

A couple of months ago at a party, my friend Luis mentioned he once carried a hefty iron tortilla maker in his hand luggage, from his native Mexico to Rome. Other friends immediately jumped at him: “Can you make us burritos?” And so he did, in a 4-course dinner that blew our minds. Weeks later I was invited over at Hande’s to have German food and most recently I organized an Indonesian dinner. I jokingly dubbed these nights “The Non-Italian Food Club”.

When a cab driver recently stated that Roman food is the best in the world I couldn’t say no. Just because he wouldn’t let me. Clinging to your traditions is a fantastic thing, because a lot of people including myself reap the benefits from unbending rules. But how many times do I have to say that ‘different’ doesn’t mean better or worse?

From a young age I was exposed to a variety of cuisines. Traditional Dutch food was only remarkable in the hands of both my grandmothers. My mom cooked a mean curry one night and a bouillabaisse the next. Obviously I followed her example. And then my horizon expanded even more during my stint in New York. Having great food at your fingertips 24/7 is exhilarating!

For the large immigrant population Rome has, the city boasts surprisingly few non-Italian restaurants. I’m not saying ethnic food, cause as mentioned in this article recently, is there such a thing as ethnic food? And besides, I mean ALL non-Italian food, whether it be Dutch, Scandinavian or Pakistani. Anyway, if you’re brave enough to venture out to one of them, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment most of the time. There’s a handful of half-decent Korean places, some Indian restaurants, Middle-Eastern maybe. But most of it is kind of bland.

I’ve set myself on a mission to find the best non-Italian eats in Rome, even if it means wielding through a lot of crappy food. My brave friend Katie already found a good number of them, including favorites as Mesob or Shawarma Station. But what about great Mexican? Or outstanding French cuisine? In the mean time, I hope there’ll be many more of these unforgettable home-cooked dinners!

Mole Duranguense de la abuela Elvira

This is a tried and tested recipe of Luis’s grandmother Elvira. ‘Mole’ is the general term for ‘sauce’. The best known version is ‘poblano’, containing chili peppers, chocolate, shredded turkey and some other 100 ingredients. This family version from the Durango region ‘only’ has 9 (excluding those used for the broth).

  • For the broth: 1 onion, 2 garlic cloves and a bunch of fresh green herbs such as bay leaves, marjoram, thyme and so on.
  • 3 chicken breasts
  • 10 red ancho chilis
  • 1 green plantain (peel included)
  • 10 almonds
  • 4 tablespoons sesame seeds
  • 3 cm cinnamon stick, ground
  • 3-4 slices of toasted bread
  • 1 flour tortilla (browned in a frying pan with a bit of cooking oil)
  • 1 ½ tablet of Oaxaca chocolate (alternative: 150 grams of 80% cacao dark chocolate)

In a large pot, bring water to a rolling boil, add roughly chopped onion, garlic, and fresh herbs and add the chicken breasts (whole) after a few minutes. Reduce the heat, and let the chicken boil until done. (This method is pretty common in Mexico, even so that it says ‘cook the chicken the normal way’ in the recipe). Remove chicken and set aside.

Slice the ancho peppers in half, remove the seeds and soak them for 20 minutes or so in some of the warm broth.

Slice the plantain horizontally (including the peel!) and fry the slices in a bit of cooking oil until golden.

Soak the almonds and the sesame seeds in a bit of warm water. Drain and place in a food processor, together with the chilis, cinnamon, the bread (in small chunks), the tortilla, and the plantain. Process until the paste has a velvety texture.

Add this paste to a heavy-bottomed pot, and, over low heat, add the chocolate piece by piece. Keep stirring slowly until you have a thick homogeneous sauce. If it’s too thick, add a few tablespoons of broth. Add salt to taste.

Shred the chicken breasts with a fork, add the shreds to the sauce, stir for about 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the mole stand for 1 to 2 hours. Reheat before serving.

We served the mole with a slice of fried plantain, refried beans and saffron rice.

Picture courtesy of Gina Tringali.

Aaahhh, butter! (Entrecôte with sage and orange butter)

Butter. I’ll spread some on a slice of proper bread, sprinkle it with some sea salt and call it dinner. Or I’ll cook some fresh fish in a good puddle of the stuff and finish off with a squeeze of lemon.

I guess I shouldn’t be saying this out loud in the land of olive oil worshippers, but I really LOVE butter. My mantra: “you can never have enough of a thing that is bad for you.” At its best, butter is creamy but light, with a slightly tart, buttermilky flavor (never sour!). It is bright yellow in color, has a slight shimmer and just screams: FARM FRESH!

So, I guess I shouldn’t even be thinking this at all in the land where every single national foodstuff is revered as a form of GOD, but: Italian butter sucks. It’s bleak and unattractive-looking, just tastes like fat and nothing else. I’m still looking for that one particular type that proves me wrong.

Butter really is one of the things the Dutch can be proud of. Especially of ‘boerenboter’ (farmer’s butter), made of the cream (yeah…butter should be around 84% fat) of fresh, non-homogenized milk. This ‘non-homogenized’ means that winter butter tastes completely different from summer butter, when the cows have been grazing in the meadows.

Pure lactic acid-producing bacteria are added to the cream after which they are left alone for about 36 hours. The cream comes out slightly soured, after which the churning can begin. Churning is basically shaking and beating the cream until it becomes so confused it transforms. Little ‘lumps’ of fat separate from the liquid – the buttermilk. Then, these lumps are rinsed with cold water and worked into a creamy mass that encapsulates the remaining traces of the liquid. The milk proteins emulsify the fat. The way this process is done determines the taste of the butter to a great extent (temperature, duration of churning, etc).

This is one of my favorite lazy recipes. Try to get your hands on some French (Bretagne, Normandie) butter or Irish butter.

Entrecôte with sage and orange butter

Serves 2

  • 2 medium-sized entrecotes (rib steak)
  • 3 tablespoons fresh butter, room temperature
  • 1 tablespoon sage, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon orange zest, finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon garlic, finely chopped
  • 1.5 tablespoons fresh orange juice
  • sea salt

Take the meat out of the fridge and its wrapping at least one hour before preparation. Season lightly on both sides with salt and fresh pepper.

In a small bowl, mix butter, sage, orange zests, garlic and juice with a fork to a creamy mass. Season with a bit of fresh sea salt.

Sauté the steaks ( = rare!) in butter and let them rest for about ten minutes, wrapped in aluminum foil.

Serve on preheated plates with a royal dollop of sage butter.

Picture courtesy of Luis Herrera.