Food Philosophy of Simplicity

They say one can get an insight into someone by looking at their book collection. In this particular case I’m thinking of my cookbook collection. The books cannot hid the fact that my kind of food is economical and simple – the kind where the few, seasonally fresh, ingredients speak for themselves. It is also not difficult to discover that I am a big fan of anything Mediterranean. So, when the cookbook club, The Cookbook Guru, issued a request for nominations of books for their 2015 list among our own cookbook collections, it was fairly certain I would pick something that fit the simple and the Mediterranean profile.

Of the numerous Italian cookbooks on my shelves, I find myself returning to the River Cafe books by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers. The food philosophy they infused into their London restaurant is reflected in their numerous cookbooks (and spin-off TV series). On the book jacket of their first book, simply entitled The River Cafe Cookbook, the food philosophy is said to revolve around traditional cucina povera. Literally translated as “food of the poor”, cucina povera can be characterised as rustic, straight forward home cooking that also pays attention to the quality and freshness of the produce. It always seems magical, transforming humble ingredients into something fabulous.

lemon_spaghetti_feature

Spaghetti al Limone
Like many of the recipes in The River Cafe Cookbook, this one uses simple fresh ingredients. The one qualm I have with the pasta recipes in the book is the tendency to use too little pasta for the amount of sauce. Since I don’t like my pasta swimming in sauce, I usually modify the proportions. However, I do not alter the combination of ingredients or stint on the quality – simplicity, economy and taste all rolled into one.

  • 100ml extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 lemons
  • 100g freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • 2 handfuls of fresh basil
  • 500g spaghetti

lemon_spaghetti_prep1

Whisk the olive oil and the juice from the lemons in a bowl. Grate the Parmesan and stir a little at a time in the lemon and oil. Finely chop the basil leaves. Set both of these aside.

lemon_spaghetti_prep2

Boil well-salted water in a large pot and cook the spaghetti according to the instructions on the packet. I generally cook it one less minute than printed to ensure that it will be al dente. When cooked, drain but do not rinse. Place the pasta back into the pot on very low heat and add the lemon sauce. Stir and lift the spaghetti strands until the cheese completely melts and the sauce coats the pasta. Turn off heat and stir in the chopped basil. Serve.

Postscript
The River Cafe has been highly influential in the London food scene since it first opened its doors in 1987. Gray (until her death in 2010) and Rogers have since bequeathed their food philosophy to any number of restauranteurs (such as Sam and Sam Clark of Moro in London and April Bloomfield of The Spotted Pig in New York City) and celebrity chefs (such as Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall) and many others who trained in their kitchens.

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30 comments

    • It was very nice – lemon and basil is a great combination. In fact, that rings a bell – somewhere I had a lovely lemon and basil gelato and I was struck at how well these two went together.

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  1. As italian i’d love to read that book of river cafe which i already knew but never had to chance to readone of their books.
    I love spaghetti al limone (not lemone but anyway i’m sure i make much more mistakes when I write in english, for which i please you to forgive me:) ) …I usually made them with butter and chive but i’d love to try this version! I’m a big fan of cucina povera too, it tells the story of our ancestors and how they lived.

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    • Oh, thank you – have. edited! I’ve never actually been to the River Cafe in London, but love the books – more cooking from than extra text for reading. Basic. Butter and chive sounds good, too.

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    • Glad you caught it! I’m backlogged with reading/commenting on posts and no doubt would eventually have go around to telling you… We have pasta frequently and love these fresh sauces. Anchovy and oil is nice, too.

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  2. Reblogged this on The Cookbook Guru and commented:
    A beautiful and simple pasta in the form of cucina povera from My Kitchen Witch to share with you all. Nominating anything to do with simple, tasty mediterranean food that focus’ on flavour is sure to be a winner with everyone I’m sure.
    Enjoy, Leah

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  3. I know of the River Cafe books but that’s about it. I’ll start my exploration with this pasta sauce, I love the list of simple but bursting with flavour ingredients

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    • It took me a while to get into the River Cafe books. There are a lot of versions out there, including one based on a TV series they did. I guess it was Rose Gray’s death in 2010 that had me going back and pulling them off the shelf again. The first thing I made was Pappa al Pomodoro – a thick fresh tomato soup thickened with bread and enlivened with shreds of fresh basil. So simple and absolutely ambrosia!

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  4. That’s the beauty of the River Cafe books – so many recipes can be overlooked for being over simplistic, but using the best of ingredients, those are the ones that just shine. Like this one – I’m afraid I’d be tempted to add capers or parsley but should just stick to the recipe and appreciate it for what it is.

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    • You are right, simplicity is often overlooked or deemed boring. However, these are the recipes that allow the fresh (quality) ingredients to shine. Of course, being addicted to Italian food also helps!

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  5. I love fresh and simple. This recipe is perfect. I’m really glad you feel the way I do about pasta swimming in sauce. I think a sauce should enhance not cover. Well done. Lemon and basil is like a gift.

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    • When I was growing up, pasta was made and served in the absolute wrong way – cooked until soft, drained and well rinsed to get all the excess starch off, than with loads of sauce piled on once plated. When I started emulating Italian friends and watching them cook, it became evident that 1) cook in well-salted water until al dente, 2) do not rinse (or the sauce will. not coat) and 3) mix with the sauce before serving and only enough to coat. Some sauces also require a little of the starchy cooking liquid. What a difference it made! If you make the lemon and basil pasta, I hope you enjoy it.

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  6. Like you say – simple and seasonal is usually the best way to go. Your spaghetti recipe sounds like a perfect summer pasta dish… one I’m going to be trying soon.

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  7. Thanks for reminding me about these books, I think I have one on the shelf. That spaghetti dish looks so summery- simlicity itself. What more could you want.

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    • The books are easy to overlook. In fact, I did so myself for years. The recipes are simple and straightforward, but there is not a lot of social context or exciting photos. Some books you cook from, others you read (or admire the pictures), and the rare (treasured ones) you can do both. This pasta is delicious and perfect for the summer.

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  8. I love this recipe… we will have it tonight.. thanks… I like the lemon pasta from Trader Joes’ and know I will enjoy this fresh and simple one.
    womenlivinglifeafte50.com

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  9. Beautiful, love this cookbook and you have inspired me to seek out my copy for a re-read. I wound love to have eaten there in it’s heyday when Gray and Rogers were at the helm.

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    • I’ve never been to the restaurant which they say is quite pricey. I think Rogers is still there in the kitchens, but it must be a different place since Rose Gray passed away. Cooking from the books is satisfying.

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  10. Cucina povera is totally my kind of food. I like European and North American best. The Mexicans have some of the best poverty food on the planet.

    I’ve made a similar but slightly more complex dish before – Heat olive oil with lemon zest and garlic. Slice leftover boiled potatoes, sliced raw onion, any kind of green vegetable you have on hand (green beans, peas, asparagus, leafy greens), raw or cooked, and then freshly boiled pasta. Toss everything together when finished and top with the juice of the zested lemon and a dollop or two of plain yogurt or sour cream. YUM. Good with leftover or freshly grilled chicken, too.

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    • Since we eat pasta quite a lot, I also scrounge around for leftovers and bits of veg in the refrigerator to come up with “unique” sauces. Sometimes something spectacular happens! I like Mexican food, too, and ate quite a bit of it when we lived in the US, but some of the ingredients (chillies mostly) are difficult to source here in the UK.

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