Ball bear­ings

Rachel Roddy’s Ro­man fish cakes

The Guardian - Cook - - Front Page - Rachel Roddy Rachel Roddy is a food writer based in Rome and won the Guild of Food Writ­ers food writer and cook­ery writer awards for this col­umn. Her new book, Two Kitchens (Head­line Home) is out now; @rachelal­iceroddy

Au­gusto rides through Tes­tac­cio mar­ket ev­ery morn­ing at about 9.30, his bi­cy­cle cut­ting a pretty smooth and steady path be­tween stalls and shop­pers. He stops to buy veg­eta­bles from Il Vel­letrano, meat from the butcher Sar­tor, then fish from the stall that used to be run by Mauro. Mauro and Au­gusto used to barter un­til their frontal veins bulged so in­sis­tently I wor­ried they might burst, and they had been at it for years. These days, it is the young ap­pren­tice that stands firm as a daily deal is struck and a metal trol­ley of boxes filled with sil­verblue an­chovies and mot­tled clams, tiny oc­to­puses and loose-mouthed groupers is pushed three streets from the mar­ket to Au­gusto’s ris­torante.

At La Tor­ri­cella, the nar­row front sec­tion opens up into a big room di­vided by pil­lars; there is a bu­colic Ro­man scene painted on one wall and a large por­trait that seems in­flu­enced by both Klimt and Bar­bara Cart­land on an­other. There are dou­ble cloths on each ta­ble, yel­low nap­kins, a salt­pep­per-tooth­pick set, and glasses with squat stems that are nice to hold.

In his ex­cel­lent book on Ital­ian cul­ture, Mas­simo Mon­ta­nari de­scribed the evo­lu­tion of eat­ing es­tab­lish­ments in Italy in the 19th cen­tury, how os­te­ria, trat­to­ria (which he calls “ur­ban inn”) and fam­ily-run restau­rants were – and still are – ex­ten­sions of peo­ple’s homes, serv­ing wine and “sim­ple, tra­di­tional food of in­tense flavour based around lo­cal in­gre­di­ents”. In short, good al­most-home-style cook­ing with the oc­ca­sional flour­ish, and with wine by the litre, for a good price.

Years ago, I re­mem­ber read­ing the ad­vice writ­ten by a Ro­man food critic who said not just to ask the lo­cals where they go, but to ask to go with a lo­cal and see what they or­der. Then, if you like the place, build up a re­la­tion­ship – even if just for a few days. Find­ing La Tor­ri­cella was like meet­ing some­one I knew was go­ing to be a good friend. It was the same with the food – good and un­fussy; the sort of thing I want to eat again and again: curls of fried an­chovy and golden cod cheeks, fish soup, spaghetti tan­gled with clams, bean and ch­est­nut soup, baked fish and sliced pota­toes, ch­est­nut ice-cream with squirty cream. We come of­ten and my son has grown up here, eat­ing spaghetti al po­modoro know­ing kids are as wel­come as adults.

There is also a trol­ley. What is it about a trol­ley? Is it the an­tic­i­pa­tion of it be­ing wheeled to­wards you, rat­tling with good things? La Tor­ri­cella’s is home to an­tipasti and side dishes, which vary from day to day and, like the rest of the menu, are mostly fish. There is usu­ally a large bowl of oc­to­pus salad – pink-edged chunks dressed in olive oil with thin slices of cel­ery; a salad of flaked fish, let­tuce and prawns; and now that ar­ti­chokes are back in sea­son, there are al­ways at least two prepa­ra­tions. Lately there have also been fish­balls, the size of a plump wal­nut, flecked with pars­ley and sit­ting in pool of bright-red, rich tomato sauce.

As with Ital­ian meat­balls, bread is key in fish­balls, not only to make things go fur­ther, but for an al­most pil­lowy tex­ture. We were with my part­ner Vin­cenzo’s par­ents the day we first ate these, and his mother is a de­tec­tive, guess­ing ev­ery in­gre­di­ent and es­ti­mat­ing pro­por­tions. In my recre­ation of Au­gusto’s recipe, I have sug­gested a 4:1 ra­tio of fish to bread, but you could add more bread if you wanted, in which case even more lemon and cheese are worth adding. Al­most all white fish would work here, but I par­tic­u­larly like cod and hake. It re­ally is worth mak­ing a fresh tomato sauce, let­ting it sim­mer un­til glossy and rich, adding a lit­tle sugar to the sauce if it is acidic, then poach­ing the fish­balls in the sauce un­til plump. Eat with rice or sim­ply bread, with salad af­ter­wards and about half a litre of house white each.

Polpette di pesce al sugo (fish­balls in tomato sauce)

The dry bread­crumbs are just for mould­ing, but I love how they thicken the sauce. How­ever, if you can’t get very fine crumbs, they are not es­sen­tial.

Serves 4

400g skin­less fish fil­lets, such as cod or hake

100g soft white bread­crumbs

1 egg, beaten

1 gar­lic clove, very finely chopped

2 tbsp finely chopped pars­ley, plus ex­tra 1 tbsp grated parme­san (op­tional) Zest of 1 un­waxed lemon

Salt and black pep­per

Fine, dry bread­crumbs (op­tional)

For the sauce

1kg ripe toma­toes, or 500g tinned peeled plum toma­toes

Olive oil

1-2 gar­lic cloves, peeled and crushed A sprig of basil

1 Chop or mince the fish. In a large bowl, soften the bread­crumbs with the egg then add the fish, gar­lic, pars­ley, parme­san (if you are us­ing it), lemon zest, salt and pep­per. Use your hands to bring every­thing into a soft, con­sis­tent mass. If the mix­ture seems too wet, add a hand­ful of dried bread­crumbs.

2 Scoop out large tea­spoons of the mix­ture then shape into wal­nut-sized balls, rolling in dry bread­crumbs if you wish. Then leave the fish­balls to rest.

3 Make the sauce. If you are us­ing fresh toma­toes, peel them by plung­ing them first in boil­ing wa­ter then in cold wa­ter. Chop roughly, dis­card­ing any tough bits. If you are us­ing tinned toma­toes, use scis­sors to chop them in the tin.

4 In a large fry­ing pan, warm 5 tbsp olive oil with the gar­lic. Once fra­grant, add the toma­toes and basil and sim­mer for 10 min­utes, mash­ing with a spoon.

5 Now add the fish­balls. Sim­mer for an­other 25 min­utes or so, turn­ing them from time to time and adding a lit­tle more wa­ter if sauce looks too re­duced.

6 Once the fish­balls are cooked through, pull them from the heat, sprin­kle with more finely chopped pars­ley and serve.

Find­ing La Tor­ri­cella was like meet­ing some­one I knew was go­ing to be a good friend

Cook’s tip The fish­balls can also be made with blue fish – sar­dines or mack­erel – in which case pine nuts or raisins make a nice, and very Si­cil­ian, ad­di­tion.

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