Two Kitchens: Family Recipes from Sicily and Rome by Rachel Roddy reviewed

Jill Norman

Rachel Roddy is one of those rare writers possessed of an elegant and seemingly effortless style, and a distinctive voice.  She writes with warmth, honesty and spontaneity and I have the feeling that she could write on many subjects. We are fortunate that she has chosen food and cooking.  Immensely readable, Two Kitchens draws the reader in and the urge to cook is immediate.

Roddy’s second book interweaves family stories from Rome and her partner’s grandparents’ house in Gela, Sicily with her versions of traditional recipes from both places. ‘I hope I have respected the traditional ways of doing things and local formulas, these are very much my interpretations of Sicilian and Roman dishes - it is home cooking, which is by its nature anarchic, resourceful and personal’. This is the food she cooks for her family, with occasional helpful notes from an English cook in Italy to those cooking in Britain.

Italy has some of the best fresh produce in the world, and the book focuses more on fruit, vegetables, herbs and nuts than meat, fish or dairy, with tomatoes, aubergines, broad beans, peaches, oranges, figs and almonds predominant.  Roddy has some wise words on herbs; of oregano, widely used in Sicily, she notes that its flavour is brought out better by stewing than frying.  The woody aromatics of rosemary develop when combined with garlic and white wine. Mentuccia, wild mint, occasionally found growing between cracked paving stones in Rome, is good with artichokes, courgettes and pumpkin.  The Store Cupboard chapter provides a wide range of recipes for a northern reader to explore, particularly those using chickpeas, lentils and anchovies.

On Rachel's balcony in Rome
On Rachel's balcony in Rome

Each ingredient has a personal and practical introduction: from going to the local port to buy fish, how ricotta is made, Sicilian history and orange groves, anchovies in Rome and sardines in Sicily.

 All the recipes start with a note that may be from family background, an anecdote from a local vendor, or observations on the recipe, such as that for Cipollata. ‘Cipollata is dish somewhere between a relish, a side dish and a salad.  It has the qualities of all three but won’t commit, which is what makes it so delicious and useful. It has the soft, companionable, sticky sweet-and-sour nature of a chutney or relish, but isn’t cooked to death, so it retains some texture and takes up enough room to be considered a vegetable side dish.  There is a slight crunch and verve, which gives it the feeling of a salad’. If you’ve never had Cipollata before, this describes the dish perfectly and stirs up expectations. Of Sweet-and-Sour Rabbit she says it may sound odd to brown the rabbit with tomatoes, but ‘have faith’ and eventually the liquid cooks down to leave the rabbit coated in a sour and sweet sauce.  There is good advice, too, about using farro as the base for a salad with eggs, tuna and capers, which can be extended with tomatoes, red onion, olives, and she suggests adding it to lentil soup in winter.

I much enjoyed her version of Jane Grigson’s Cauliflower Cheese, adapted to Roman life with the addition of borlotti beans and Parmesan, the Chickpeas with Rosemary, and the Orange, Fennel and Black Olive salad, similar to one from Morocco that I often make, and to which I also add pomegranate seeds. As autumn approaches I’m looking forward to cooking many more dishes.

Two Kitchens brings together the Arab and Greek elements of Sicilian cooking with those of Rome. It also invites the reader to share family life as experienced through the food they buy and eat, and that is a great privilege. 


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Nick Seaton & Penny Averill Photographs