Jamie Oliver: the recipe that changed my life

The cooks cook The cook talks about the woman who inspired him Rose Gray of the River Cafe and the dish that gave him his big break

Rotolo is a Tuscan dish, involving homemade sheet pasta, greens( spinach, stinging nettles, borage ), ricotta, parmesan and porcini, all rolled up and baked in tomato sauce, then sliced and served with sage butter. When you cut through the rotolo, you get a whirls of the pasta, a vortex of the green, bomb of the white cheese and, in the middle, that beautiful mushroom cooked so it’s tender and intense and meaty and creamy.

It’s not as complicated as it sounds, but it is unusual, which entails people like to look at it. And that’s what I was cooking when Christmas at the River Cafe was filmed 23 years ago. It’s the only reason I got detected and aimed up on Tv. It’s how I got to where I am today.

Rose Gray’ teach me to insure food through the eyes of a woman. She was incredible .’
Photograph: Pal Hansen/ Contour by Getty Images

I remember the day my boss, the River Cafe’s co-owner, Rose Gray , taught me to make it. I had never savoured anything like it in my life. Pasta as silken as a scarf; greens the very opposite of what most British kids knew, because since the war we had tends to boil the shit out of them, whereas here, braised with garlic and butter and nutmeg, they were intense, darknes green, delicious. The ricotta, clean and white; the sage as crispy as pommes frites.

Rotolo has been with me ever since. We have it on the menu at Jamie’s Italian. As the seasons change, we go from mushrooms to butternut squash. It’s delicious fresh from being poached, and the leftovers can be baked- al forno – in tomato sauce. I love the rite of attaining it.

It taught me a great deal about Italian food. It also taught me to consider food through the eyes of a woman. Rose was unbelievable. She wasn’t a chef, but a self-taught cook at a time in Britain when there weren’t many women in the kitchen, and surely no female owners who weren’t developed cooks. Largely, Rose didn’t dedicate a damn about protocol. She and her business partner, Ruth Rogers, had spent many years living in the mountains of Tuscany, and instead of the nearly robotically methodical style most chefs operated at the time, they would buy fresh ingredients and write two new menus- one for lunch and one for dinner- every day. They taught me about seasonality, and using the whole animal, and they gave context to ingredients. They weren’t academic about food- they taught me to be more responsive and more nurturing.

Rose was strong and kind and clever. Quite artistic by nature, she surrounded herself with artistic people but favoured simplicity. Restaurant cooking at the time was about garnishes and garmenting things up: inducing food appear prettier than it actually was. Rose, by contrast, was paring things down, and buying the very best ingredients. She would happily expend five times the usual sum on the best dried chickpeas, then spend a day soaking them and a day cooking them. She taught me that it wasn’t necessarily about following a tradition of the only style to cook something, but instead, detecting the most effective ways to cook that thing, on that day, with that weather.

If you’ve worked at the River Cafe, you belong to a family- even if you haven’t worked with more recent staff member, you know each other really well because you’ve come from the same school. When Rose passed away in 2010, there were 15 or 20 generations of cooks at her funeral. It was astounding to see potential impacts she had.

She still castigates me every day, in my head- in a nice style. I learned from her to focus on what we can do better, rather than pat ourselves on the back about how good we are. She was a great teacher.

Squash and spinach pasta rotolo

Rotolo is one of the more unusual pasta dishes- many people have never eaten it before. The style I prepare mine entails it is closer to a lasagne or cannelloni. It looks really pretty and you get the gnarly, crisp bits of pasta on the top complemented by the softer pasta concealing underneath the sauce.

Pretty gnarly: Jamie Oliver’s squash and spinach rotolo. Photograph: David Loftus

Prep 20 min
Cook 2 hr 20 min
Serves 4 to 6

1 butternut squash ( about 1.2 kg)
1 red onion
Olive oil
1 tsp dried thyme
Salt and black pepper
500 g frozen spinach
1 whole nutmeg , for grating
4 garlic cloves
1 x 700 ml jar passata
6 big fresh pasta sheets ( 15 cm x 20 cm each)
50 g feta cheese
20 g parmesan cheese
A few sprigs of fresh sage ( optional)

Heat the oven to 180 C/ 350 F/ gas 4. Cook the squash whole on a roast tray for around one hour 30 minutes, then take out of the oven. Meanwhile, peel and roughly chop the onion, put into a medium pan on a medium-low hot with a glug of oil, the thyme and a pinch of ocean salt and black pepper, and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Stir in the frozen spinach, cover-up with a lid and leave to cook slowly for another 15 minutes, until the liquid has evaporated, then take it off the hot. Cut the squash in half, dispose the seeds and skin, then mash up with a fork. Keeping them separate, season both the squash and spinach to perfection with salt, pepper and a grating of nutmeg.

Peel and finely slice the garlic, then set it into a shallow 28 cm casserole pan on a medium heat with a splashing of petroleum and fry for a couple of minutes, until light golden. Pour in the passata, add a splashing of water to the empty jar, swirl it around and pour it into the pan. Bring to a boil, simmer for merely three minutes, then season to taste.

On a clean work surface, lay out the pasta sheets facing lengthways away from you. Working rapidly so the pasta doesn’t dry out, brush them with water, then evenly divide and spread the squash over the sheets. Sprinkle over the cooked spinach and crumble over the feta. Roll up the sheets and cut each one into four chunks, then place side-by-side in the tomato sauce. Finely grate over the parmesan, then pick the sage leaves( if utilizing ), toss in a little petroleum and scatter over the top. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes at the bottom of the oven until golden and crisp. Delicious served with a fresh green salad.

From Save with Jamie, by Jamie Oliver( Penguin Random House )

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