In her most personal book yet, Olia Hercules distills a lifetime of kitchen curiosity into her 100 most loved recipes. She draws on her broad influences: her childhood in Eastern Europe; her years in Cyprus and Italy; her simple, plant-centric family meals at home in London; and the special festive recipes she has gleaned along the way.
All these seemingly diverse recipes are centred on comfort and connection. These are recipes that have been handwritten, handed down, and shared among friends: “They are nostalgic like the potatoes of my childhood, they share trade secrets like Bisque-style red mullet pasta, they interweave every day like Joe’s beet, feta, and potatoes, and they make everything ok like Life-giving rhubarb cake.
The foods we choose to cook time and again are part of what makes us, and when we share those recipes, we give a little of ourselves.” In this book, Olia gives us her food story through her very favourite recipes.
White Ragu of Genoa, Naples, and Odesa
I spent a summer in Sicily when I was 20. For the first half I worked as a waitress in a restaurant, and for the second I traveled the island with my friends. We were all quite destitute, and we rented a dark, flaky apartment in one of the grand but crumbling buildings in Palermo. One of my Pugliese friends, Daniele Vilardo, a natural cook, started simmering something in a massive pot. I thought the amount of onions he put in was staggering. Then he added ground meat. Then we waited. I remember my raging hunger and the sweet, soft smell of the cooking. After a couple of hours, the dish was ready. It involved just a couple of ingredients but it was incredible. And it also time-machined me back to my childhood, to an unassuming pasta dish we called makaroni po flotski (“navy-style macaroni”). My dad’s version also just involved onions, ground pork, and beef. His only took 30 minutes and it worked. But this Napolitano sugo bianco (white sauce) is something else. I did some research, and confusingly it hails from Naples, but is called Genovese. The legend goes that merchants from Genoa, who lived in Naples in the 16th century, introduced it to the area. So this dish has a double layer of nostalgia attached to it for me, the first for my childhood and the second for my carefree, exciting year of being a student abroad. I implore you to try it.
Serves 4 (at least twice)
2 ¼ lb (1 kg) onions (yes, this many)
3 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp unsalted butter
14 oz (400 g) ground pork
14 oz (400 g) ground beef
1 bay leaf
Splash of white wine (optional)
9 oz (250 g) rigatoni (or penne, ziti, bucatini, or any other tubular pasta)
Sea salt and black pepper
Healthy grating of Parmesan or ricotta salata, to serve
For the pangrattato (optional)
1 ¾ oz (50 g) good-quality bread
Finely grated zest of ½ unwaxed lemon
Small handful of parsley leaves, finely chopped
1 tsp chile flakes, or finely chopped fresh chile
Slice the onions, not too finely, but aiming for thinnish. Put the oil and butter into a medium-sized pot, then add the onions and a generous pinch of salt. You are not looking to brown the onions but to make them turn soft and release a lot of their juices; adding salt helps with this.
Cook them over medium-low heat with the lid on for about 20 minutes, stirring often, until a lot of the juice gets released. I repeat, please in this instance do not let the onions colour, otherwise, the dish will be very different from what I want you to experience. If at any point you notice that the onions start sticking to the pot, your heat was too high, but it’s OK, add a splash of water and scrape at the base, then reduce the heat.
Now add the ground meats, bay leaf, another pinch of salt, and plenty of black pepper and stir them through the onions thoroughly. Reduce the heat to its lowest setting and cook it slowly for 2-3 hours, again with the lid on. Check from time to time that it isn’t catching at the bottom, add a splash of water if it looks a little dry. But really, you shouldn’t need to stir it too often; the onions and meat should release enough juices to do their thing independently from you.
The sauce is ready when the mixture looks gently brown, creamy, and almost homogenous. You can add a splash of wine here and cook for another 10 minutes, but I rarely add the wine. If there is a lot of liquid in the pot, increase the heat and reduce it down. It should look, as Italians say, cremosa (“creamy”).
Look, more often than not, I eat it as it is, I like and embrace the softness of it all. But if you are keen to add a little crunch and colour to this cremosity, make my easy, non-greasy pangrattato.
Of course, you can just use good-quality breadcrumbs. But if you have some scrag ends of bread that need using up, do so! Preheat the oven to 375 F (190 C). Chop the bread (crust and all) into small chunks, then put it on a baking pan and into the oven for 10-15 minutes. I don’t add any oil, because there is already so much delicious fattiness in the sauce. When the bread is dry and crispy, I put it into a mortar and pestle and crush it a bit into rough breadcrumbs. Lacking a mortar and pestle, you can always chip through them with a knife. Mix the breadcrumbs with the lemon zest, parsley, and chile.
Serve the sauce with some penne or other tubular pasta, cooked according to the package instructions, and make it rain with Parmesan or ricotta salata. Then also sprinkle over some pangrattato—which is supposed to be poor man’s Parmesan—but hey, just have it all, the cheesy and the crisp.
Recipe reprinted with permission from Interlink Books.