Amelia does Italy

While browsing at the library last week I came across a cookbook from The River Cafe. For any non foodies reading, the River Cafe is one of THE best restaurants to eat at in the world. Here is a quick brush up on Rose Gray's life that you must read. It's important to know where she came from and how inspiring she is to me even though I have never met her ( and never will. She passed away earlier this year)

Here is an article about her published in The Guardian UK:

Rose Gray, who has died of cancer aged 71, was the co-founder, along with Ruth Rogers, of the iconic River Cafe in London, and was one of Britain's most influential modern chefs and cookery writers. In a 23-year partnership with Ruthie, she revolutionised Italian cooking in this country through an emphasis on freshness, seasonality and simplicity, and, with a bestselling series of ground-breaking and beautifully designed books, established a worldwide reputation for herself and the restaurant.

Rose was tall, worldly and beautiful, and had a well-earned reputation for indomitability. Watching her on the floor of her coolly glamorous restaurant, confident, composed, so obviously enjoying who she was and what she did, it is hard to imagine that Rose had ever experienced a single setback. But setbacks there were, in her personal and business lives. These she overcame with a no-nonsense determination that became one of her defining characteristics. "Rose just got on with things," her oldest friend, the architect Su Rogers, says of her. "She always made the best of whatever happened."

The knocks came early and hard. Shortly before Rose was born, her pregnant mother Anne returned from a trip to London to the cottage she shared with her husband and infant daughter to find the family home burned to the ground. Rose's father and sister were dead. Anne had come from a middleclass family – her grandfather, Sir Trevor Lawrence, had been the president of the Royal Horticultural Society – but life changed dramatically after the fire. She and Rose were taken in by Anne's sister Naomi, who lived in Box Hill, Surrey. It was a Women's Institute kind of atmosphere, money was tight, frugality was all and the politics were conservative.

Rose was packed off to a convent boarding school aged eight or nine, a spectacularly inappropriate choice for a girl who was already free spirited, outgoing and passionate about art. She was more at home at the Guildford School of Fine Art, where she gained a BA. She was exciting to be around – "the kind of girl you saw and just wanted to be friends with," Su recalls. She loved parties and dancing.

After a short stint teaching fine art at a girls' school in Shoreditch, in east London, Rose married Michael Gray in 1962. The couple had three children in quick succession, Hester, Lucy and Ossian (Ossie), and moved to a house in Warwick Avenue. Ever the entrepreneur, Rose created a self-assembly paper lampshade and furniture business with a friend, and their products sold in Habitat, Liberty and Heal's. She was also honing the cookery skills she had learned from her mother, setting up a crepe business catering for parties and nightclubs.

In 1969, a 21-year-old graphic artist called Ruthie Elias turned up at the Warwick Avenue house. Newly arrived in London from upstate New York, Ruthie remembers Rose, who was 10 years older, as bohemian, exotic and exciting, bursting with energy, despite the three young children in tow. The two women had an additional connection through the then relatively unknown young architect Richard Rogers, to whom Rose's friend Su had been married and whom Ruthie would shortly marry. But although they saw each other occasionally, Rose and Ruthie's extraordinary partnership still lay almost 20 years in the future.

While the children were still quite young, Rose fell in love with David MacIlwaine, a sculptor and artist, whom she later married. David was the love of her life; their union was happy, fulfilling and mutually supportive. Together Rose and David had a son, Dante, Rose's fourth child.

Rose and David started a new business together, importing cast-iron stoves from Europe, primarily France, for sale from their shop at Chiltern Street in London. But after two or three years of fairly successful trading, they over-stretched and went bankrupt. The early 80s were difficult years for the couple. Rose, David, Lucy and Dante moved to Italy, while David worked on an exhibition. They settled near Lucca, in Tuscany. It was here that Rose began to take a serious interest in Italian cuisine, collecting recipes and learning about ingredients and the region's cooking.

In 1985, while David's exhibition was shown in New York, Rose received an invitation to cook there at a newly opened fashionable Italian-style restaurant, Nell's Club. It was the first cooking Rose had done professionally and she loved it. Returning to London two years later she worked briefly as a chef at Carluccio's – but there was never going to be enough freedom there for a woman of Rose's strong ideas and irrepressibility.

It was at this time that Rose and Ruthie's paths crossed again. Richard Rogers had just set up his office at Thames Wharf, in Hammersmith, and he was keen for the development to be not just offices but a community: this meant having somewhere for everyone to eat. Over a cup of coffee, Ruthie proposed the idea of a restaurant to Rose. Rose said simply: "Let's do it."

The result was The River Cafe, which opened in 1987, when Rose was almost 50. Her children were grown and she threw herself into the project. She sourced ingredients, cultivated relationships with wine-makers in Italy, and worked long, punishing hours. To begin with there were just Rose, Ruthie, one waiter and one washer-up (later, all of Rose's children would be involved).But Rose had big ambitions for their little restaurant. In those days, Rose was to say, Italian food in London "was spaghetti Bolognese and tiramisu". She wanted to cook the kind of food she had eaten and prepared while living in Italy – grilled meats, bread soups, pasta.

The restaurant's reputation grew quickly. Five years later the premises were expanded, and, Rose, a passionate and hugely respected gardener, created a stunning herb garden, which was graced by David's sculptures. In 1998 the River Cafe earned a Michelin star, which it has kept ever since. Her partnership with Ruthie was close; their uncompetitive and generous spirits became the ethos of the restaurant.

Initially Rose and Ruthie were reluctant to write a book, insisting they were chefs not writers. But they quickly understood that a book was the natural next step. Once the idea took hold, they threw themselves into it with typical energy and incredible attention to detail. With their backgrounds in fine art, Ruthie and Rose had clear ideas about how they wanted the book to look. Rose's visual sense was always acute: everything from the design of the restaurant to the waiters' dress received her careful attention.

The publisher was persuaded to break with the tradition of having an illustration of food on the cover; the text was minimal; the photographs were of food that had just come out of the kitchen. The first River Cafe Cookbook appeared from Ebury in 1995, and several more followed. It is impossible to overstate the influence these books have had in shaping our eating habits and our expectations of what we are served inrestaurants. In 1998, Rose and Ruthie presented a 12-part series on Channel 4, The Italian Kitchen.

Rose was diagnosed with breast cancer in early 2001. After surgery and chemotherapy she was clear for five years. But in 2009, just as she was finishing what was to be her last book, The River Cafe Classic Italian Cookbook, doctors discovered brain tumours. She refused to be an invalid, insisting on joining her great friends Su Rogers and Su's husband, John Miller, on a summer trip to France, even though she could hardly walk the length of the platform at the Gare du Nord. Lovingly supported by David, she bore her illness with a stoicism that was admired by her friends but did not in any way surprise them.

She is survived by David and by her children.

I couldn't believe that she was FIFTY when she opened her restaurant. This fact is completely amazing and inspiring to me. I work with someone who worked there for a short time and he has described his experiences many times with utmost honour and fondness. He described how the day's staff would show up quite awhile ahead of their shifts to learn about the day's produce, to help the kitchen with whatever prep needed to be done - and to work as a team. There was no division between front of house and back ( which is extremely common in all food businesses) everyone worked together as a team and was involved in every part of working towards a common goal. Not just the serving or the cooking. It was the experience that was important and everyone was involved. I would love to work there. I would love to even dine there. One day I will pay a visit.

With this introduction I feel safe to proceed with my own story. So... browsing at the Library, knowing what you now know about the River Cafe, I came across one of their cookbooks and decided to take it out. Well I just absolutely fell in love. The recipes are so simple and inspiring. Directions flow with a functional simplicity:

"Roughly chop the leeks. Shred the prosciutto. Peel and finely chop the garlic. Grate the Parmesan

Bring the stock to a simmer, check seasoning.

Melt half the butter in a thick bottomed pan, add the leeks and garlic, and cook until the leeks are soft.


No complicated steps, misleading terms or outdated fads ( foie gras foam anyone?) here. This cooking is all about the ingredients and how to cook them simply and properly to bring out the flavours that are inside them. I would guess that this is the Italian way.. but let's stay focused on one topic for now ;)

This is the River Cafe way... and I was hooked. Later in the week I decided I would like to buy one of their cookbooks and cook out of it for all my coworker's for a Saturday staff lunch. I had 11 mouths to feed. Keeping in mind their dietary restrictions ... ( one celiac ( no gluten) one vegetarian) and their personal hangups ( one extreme cilantro hater, one goat cheese snubber) I developed a menu I thought would appease them all:

Zuchinni Scapece ( marinated fried zuchinni)

Peperonata ( stewed red peppers)

Fagiolini Con Prezzemolo ( green beans with parsley & vinegar)

Pici Al Limone Con Pecorino ( thick spaghetti with lemon and pecorino sauce)

I started, naturally, by going to the market to get all my produce. Cycling home with 2 pounds of green beans, 1.5 kg of cheese, 8 red peppers, 2 bunches of basil, 2 bunches of parsley, 10 lemons, 2 huge red onions and 8 zuchinni... was no easy feat. I made it most of the way home and then popped a tire - likely from all the extra weight!!

I started cooking with Pepperonata - stewed red peppers. A simple dish. I sliced onions, garlic and peppers.

Then I piled them in the largest pan I own... which almost wasn't large enough!

But after 2 hours of stewing, the peppers softened

The dish is finished with tomatoes. Not just any tomatoes. Peeled tomatoes. How do you peel a tomato? Bet you've never thought of that. But in cooking it is often important as tomato skins can be tough and not complimentary to the consistency of the dish. It depends on what tomatoes you are using aswell.For this recipe I am using Plum or 'Roma' tomatoes. They are meaty and not overly watery and hold up well in a sauce. They also have good flavour. I could research and write a whole blog on tomato varieties and what to do with what kind... But let's stay focused. this recipe called for skinned tomatoes, and this is how you do it. Gently score ( to score... means to gently make a small cut with a VERY sharp knife - in fact it is just best to understand that if you plan on accomplishing anything in the kitchen.. that your knives are very sharp) So with your SHARP! knife, gently score the bottom of your tomatoes with a small x. This will enable you to peel the skins of more easily later. This isn't mandatory... the skins will come off anyway but it helps. Bring a large stock pot of water to boil. Dump in your tomatoes and let them boil for no more than 3 minutes. You will see the skins start to peel up and away. Have a bowl of ice water ready. After 3 minutes, fish out your tomatoes and immediately submerse them in the ice water.

This cools the tomatoes and ensures the flesh of the tomatoes does not cook. After they have cooled for a few minutes, simply peel away the skins, and voila! Peeled tomatoes!

I learned in cooking school that they are quite popular in french cuisine as the concept is that the tomato skins can be unpleasant to the palate in certain applications such as a small canape where there is not much cooking involved and the skins would be too toothsome. Also... french recipes often call for the GRAPES to be peeled so ... you can see they take their peels very seriously... ( a little too seriously) Anyhow I believe it was important for this recipe -albeit Italian, because they are to accompany the peppers which have been stewed for two hours which has softened the peels. And if you put the tomatoes in with the peppers at the beginning the flavour would be completely different. So- raw tomato with a soft texture. I hope you are following. These peeled tomatoes are used in french cuisine as garnishes aswell. If you core the peeled tomato and then slice it into strips it becomes 'Tomato Concasee' - which I did about 100 times during cooking classes. Anyhow it is a nice little trick. Very simple and can be quite delightful for guests if they have never had it. It's a way to fancy up the tomato!
I will add one last comment on this topic - i think it could be debated that a certain variety of tomato with a gentle soft skin could be used as a replacement and skip the whole skinning broo-haha. But this goes back to my reluctance to turn this post into a discussion on heirloom tomato varieties... perhaps another day!

Alright so tomatoes skinned, the recipe called for them to be seeded and chopped then stirred in with the stewed peppers. Voila! A simple antipasti. The slow cooking of the peppers made them very sweet and tender. The juices were almost a syrup because of all the sugar that was released. Delicious! They would keep in the refrigerator for 7 days in an airtight container and make an excellent quick salad or sandwich topping for weekday lunches.

Next came the beans. A very simple salad. Cook the beans in salted water until tender. Cool slightly and toss with olive oil, red wine vinegar, chopped fresh parsley, and salt & pepper. Delicioso!

Next up was the ever curious zuchinni.

The first step was to slice the zuchinni on the diagonal ( oh the diagonal - shapes and cuts are very imporant with food presentation. You can make a slice of zuchinni look much more posh if you slice it on the diagonal! It's true! Don't laugh!)

So following a rather excellent diagonal slicing session, the zuchinni were ready to be laid out to dry. This was important - Said Rose&Ruth.. as the zuchinni will release a bit of moisture while sitting, which you can then pad with some paper towel to remove.. and this ensures a good brown frying once you get them in the pan. So I laid out some paper towel and I actually let them sit overnight.

Fewf I was tired from all that skinning and diagonal slicing.

The next morning ... D DAY! I tackled the zuchinni. It took quite a long time to get this into swing.. so looking back I would have completed this the day before. But Alas!

Next step said Rose&Ruth was to heat enough olive oil to easily cover a heavy bottomed pan. Quarter a clove of garlic and fry it gently in the oil. Remove the garlic. Begin frying the zuchinni in batches until brown.

This part was extremely frustrating as I will admit now that I have a completely useless stove with electric burners that only heat up properly in about 1/3 of their total surface. I've learned to cook with them anyway... Any good cook should know how to improvise ..right? Or is this just what I tell myself when I'm shuffling the pan around this way and that to get everything cooking evenly. After a few rounds the pan finally heated up thoroughly and I got them all browned off. Then they were sprinkled softly with red wine vinegar, chopped mint, dried chili and salt.

Worth the effort :)

Now that I had sufficiently delayed my time management expectations I had to immediately pack up and head to work! With two tote bags filled to the brim with the 3 completed dishes plus the remaining 10 lemons, 1.5 kg of cheese I hobbled my way to work on transit. I smelled like fried zuchinni, hadn't eaten breakfast and was sweating like a tennis player in August sun. Stopped once enroute for dried pasta and arrived at work! 11am. Excellent. I had 1 hour to complete my last dish -
Pici Al Limone Con Pecorino ( thick spaghetti with lemon and pecorino sauce)

I cooked my pasta - again on a completely frustrating induction burner which hardly boils water on a good day.

I unwrapped my beautiful cheeses. This dish called for Pecorino- which is a sheeps milk cheese from Italy. Two kinds were used in this dish. An aged 'Pecorino Staginato' which had a strong nutty flavour and crumbly dry texture similar to parmesan

As well as a 'fresh' pecorino which is alot more like mozzarella in texture - but still quite strong in aroma and flavour.

So I shredded like a mad woman. I juiced and zested 10 lemons. Over a strainer to catch the seeds

The cheese was blended with the lemon juice.. and after a few minutes began to 'melt' into a sort of sauce. Doesnt look appetizing on its own but boy was it tasty!

I rapidly tossed the pasta with the sauce and threw in the basil leaves and checked for seasoning. I had left the recipe book at home for this part so luckily it wasn't too tricky. And it turned out beautifully:

I was really glad there was almost no one around for this part of my cooking. I have to profusely thank my dear friend Isaac for his help and patience during my final steps. From pulling my hair out trying to find the measuring cups and strainers in the cooky work kitchen to my obsessive plating and incessant worrying and agonizing over whether it would be enough food, Isaac was there to help me find things.. and take deep breaths. Thank you Isaac :)

It was all worth the sweat ! It turned out beautifully and everyone was pleased. Especially me. The stress and worry and bother of it all becomes instantly worth it as soon as I watch someone slurping up my food with a big smile on their face. Cooking is my favourite thing to do. And what makes me even happier than cooking is sharing my food with others.

Cooking from this book was a joy and I will definately be trying more recipes from the lovely ladies of the River Cafe. Stay tuned.

If anyone is interested the book I cooked out of is the newest book by Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray:


amy said...

im sorry for the font problems... cant seem to fix it at the moment, the compose section is showing my text at 50 pt font and other odd things so ... i will fix it asap. sorry to your eyes!

Kelly G. said...

Wow - I hardly know what to say. I am NOT a foodie but loved reading every word. You are a most remarkable person and everything I read makes me marvel even more. Keep it up!

Boo said...


I started reading this last week, and you'll have to forgive me but I was heavily medicated and got distracted. Not because this wasn't interesting but because I couldn't have found my own nose if you had asked me.

Now I'm reading it again, and AMMMYYYYYYYYYYYYY this is so interesting and inspiring. Have you thought about being a food journalist?

All this sounds sooo good and fun. And I LOVE the pictures.

I actually DID know that trick about the tomatoes, one of the only good things about working at that shit hole Xpresso was the chef who taught me many neat things.

Also, Rose is so inspiring, too....she did so many things with her life.

MMMMM all of this sounds sooooooooooooo good....gaaaaaawwwd you are a genius.


Celestial said...

These pictures are PHENOMENAL!!! I'm actually salivating as we speak lol. Such an interesting post, and the food looks/sounds delicious!

amy said...

thanks ladieees blush blush

StudioBlackwell said...

Amelia, this is so great. Keep it up -- !