Autumn has definitely arrived in full force. The trees are flaming red, russet and gold; the nights are growing darker; my boots have been re-heeled and two new cardigans have been ordered. So it seems remiss of me not to have mentioned a favourite food writer who has accompanied me in the kitchen during spring, summer and, more latterly, into October. I am speaking of Rachel Roddy, whose recipes I turn to in her Guardian column and her two books, Five Quarters dedicated to Rome and Two Kitchens split between Rome and Sicily.
I recently heard Angela Frenda, Food Editor of Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, speak of the absence of food writing in Italy. There is a strong tradition of restaurant criticism, she said, and there are many cookbooks, but the stories that accompany recipes are not told. Rachel Roddy, though not Italian herself, is changing matters by setting down the family tales and traditions that are inseparable from Italian cookery.
What differentiates Rachel from other food writers is the clarity of her own voice and the voices of the Italian people from whom she takes inspiration. Her recipes don’t always grab me immediately, but I am slowly pulled in by her evocative, seductive writing - perhaps by a story of the local trattoria, or a local market trader, or a neighbour. A friend of mine asks her other half to read Rachel’s writing aloud, because of its mellifluous tone and ability to transport the reader (or the listener) to Italy.
Rachel’s books are not those that I cook from most often, and they rarely introduce new ingredients or flavours, yet they do reinforce an approach to life and to food that I adore - unhurried, mindful, rooted in the seasons. Just as reading her words aloud is soothing for the ears, cooking and eating her recipes is soothing for the whirring brain. Cooking courgettes gently in olive oil and water until they are almost collapsing can calm your soul; eating them with silky strands of mozzarella and hunks of bread calms the stomach.
Rachel’s recipes are typically composed of a few simple ingredients, but ones which bring the most joy: vegetables, cheese, pasta, pulses, sometimes butter, always olive oil. A baked pasta with ricotta and spring vegetables brought me much popularity amongst my friends this summer. Who couldn’t find happiness in huge shells of pasta filled with lemon- and parmesan-flecked ricotta, tangled with sweet peas and ribbons of courgettes, then baked in a béchamel sauce?
My vegetable-focussed style of cooking means that I do not often explore Rachel Roddy’s meat recipes, but simplicity abounds here, too. Chicken in breadcrumbs, served with mashed potatoes and peperonata (red pepper stew), was one of the most comforting dinners in recent memory.
It is not just an appreciation for simple ingredients, but Rachel’s slow approach to cooking these ingredients, that produces the most delicious flavours. There is caponata, rested for an hour, ideally three; pepperonata, cooked for 30 minutes until thick and jammy; cherries softened for 12 minutes in a syrup of red wine and bay. She exhorts you to take time and care making pasta - kneading it until smooth the rhythm of your favourite music, then letting it relax awhile before rolling.
This is not to say that all Rachel’s recipes take a long time. She calls her soft almond pasticcini “coat-on biscuits”, because they can be made swiftly, the moment you walk in the door, possibly still with your coat on. They’ve been popular with my family during some troubled moments this year, their lemony brightness alleviating heartache. Then there are multiple sauces that can be pulled together in the time it takes to boil your pasta. Another favourite is a kind-of Italian tuna nicoise, in which you hard boil the eggs and chop the vegetables whilst the farro cooks.
Where speed is needed, there is no panic, but rather quick, purposeful movements. Perhaps the best example of this is the firm swoosh of egg and parmesan through cooling pasta to produce that that classic carbonara sauce, which clings to the spaghetti. Her courgette ‘carbonara’ (she avoids calling it this directly, for fear of angering purists) has brought much joy at home, many likes on Instagram and frequent requests for the recipe.
These are just some of the Rachel Roddy recipes that I have enjoyed and I’m certain there will be many more joyful mealtimes to come. I am still planning to try the mushroom and herb tagliatelle in the Guardian and the cherry and ricotta tart from Five Quarters; I’ve bookmarked several recipes from my new copy of Two Kitchens, such as fish in tomato sauce with capers. Then, of course, there’s the recipes I’ll often return to, chief among them those soft almond biscuits and anything with pasta.