Delve into this winter bake through a crisp surface of potato and butternut squash, past sweetly yielding red onions and sage, to find a pleasantly bitter radicchio at its core
Ionce met a woman called Glenda who told me that, in 45 years of marriage, she had never missed her weekly hair appointment and had never cooked her husband the same dinner twice. At the start of each week she would plan the six meals – the seventh was a meal out – bookmarking cookbooks and ripping recipes out of magazines. She also kept lists of all the recipes ever made, often noting with a word or two how the recipe had worked, how it was received, and even how it was digested. The digestive notes were mostly feedback from her husband, who had a minor medical issue that she didn’t go into.
Glenda had been given my book as a gift, and told me it had provided four dinners so far. I asked which ones, to which she replied, apologetically, that even though they were quite recent dinners, she didn’t have her notebook with her, and could only remember two. The first was saltimbocca, which she had made with chicken as she couldn’t find veal, and it had been a great success. The second, pasta e ceci, they had both enjoyed so much that her husband didn’t mind the fact he had to double his flatulence pills.
Soon after this revelation, our bus lurched to a stop and we parted ways. Our conversation was unfinished. I was left with so many unanswered questions, about the exact nature of the lists and notes; if she was ever tempted to make anything again; about that medical condition. I could have spent hours with Glenda talking about 45 years of dinners, and her hairdresser, and felt disappointed we didn’t have the chance. This regret, and the sharp memory of her expressive face, is probably why she remains clear in my mind, and why, when I make something for the fourth time in quick succession, I might think “Glenda would never do this”.
Not that I have any problem making things again and again. In fact I like it, and find it a reassuring relief. Maybe this is one of the reasons I have settled happily in Rome, a city which still observes an informal weekly menu in
trattorie, and in homes: Tuesday pasta e ceci, Thursday gnocchi, Friday fish, Sunday lamb with potatoes. However, what I do have in common with Glenda is that I keep notes: I come from a family of dedicated list makers. Unlike her, though, my food notes don’t show the differences, but the repetition, the fact that I am devoted to certain things, and that when I find something I like I am back to my 11-year-old self with a new single, playing it again and again.
Talking of which, do you remember the summer vegetable bake from last September? It was made with tomatoes, courgettes, potatoes, onions, oregano and olive oil. The aroma as it bakes is so good that workmen might stop, for a moment, at your door. The first time I made it, it felt like an old friend, and immediately became a regular around here – possibly too regular – which meant it wasn’t a bad thing when it was put away with the shorts and floor fan.
Last week, it crossed my mind to do a winter version. But what to put in it? Potatoes, butternut squash and onions sprang to mind, making it a little bit like a mixed root boulangére. But it needed ... something else? I was picking up the onions at the market when it came to me: they would go well with red chicory, which is particularly good at the moment. There’s the small cabbagelike radicchio di Chioggia and also radicchio Treviso, its long slender leaves the colour of a bishop’s robe. Radicchio is not only a fine, pleasingly bitter salad – especially with walnuts, soft cheese and balsamic vinegar – it also grills and bakes beautifully. It sounds counterintuitive to cook salad leaves, but sandwiched between layers of potatoes and squash, radicchio wilts beautifully, providing a soft, ever-so-