I can’t understand why this dish isn’t ubiquitous. It’s so simple and so satisfying, and yet I have never come across it anywhere ever, except in a Nigella recipe book, but hers is stuffed with meat – the unhealthiest kind, so I’ve not been tempted to try it.
Pizza Rustica is what a lot of my friends think of as my signature dish, because I used to make it very often – less so now because of the whole gluten and tentative dairy embargo, but it is no problem to make it gluten free, so that’s what I do when I make it now. I feel a bit guilty being complimented for it because a) it's so simple, and b) I took the recipe from a great cook. I don't know where she got it, but I feel the
appreciation should go to her. Not just for this wonderful dish, but for inspiring me to be an enthusiastic cook.
Jane is the woman who would have been my mother-in-law had I married my college sweetheart, or uni boyfriend as we say over here. During the four or so years we were together I stayed with his family quite often. They extended me amazing warmth, and generously employed me on their garden nursery during the holidays even though I was a lazy toad, as my dad would put it, and turned up late every day even though it was mere yards from their front door. I am mortified anew each time I think of it. All the while I availed myself of their wonderful hospitality, for which I am not certain I ever made my gratitude clear.
It was utterly marvellous staying with them, partly because they live in the wilds on the Scottish west coast in an area more remote and beautiful than I had ever experienced or knew was possible in the UK, as a teenager who went to school in Zone 1. It was also a wholly positive experience because the whole family is such a delight, but one aspect in particular that has always stayed with me is the fact that Jane was – and I’m certain still is – a woman who could work hard all day, and then come home and make an amazing meal with not a hint of duress or even visible exertion. A combination of a particular temperament and a rural pace of life made this possible, I think. I aspire greatly to both.
I now know that there was of course great exertion, but she didn’t show any signs of it. She would come home and prepare the family meal with good humour. It did not seem dutiful and stressed, and I remember remarking upon it even then, and her simply saying she liked the ritual. That’s how she unwound after a day of work. She would come home, pour a glass of wine, and happily cook for a couple of hours, and she did this most nights. And now when people tell me not to put myself out by preparing a complicated meal I reply with a similar admission: I love preparing food for people, and while it is an effort, it is one I undertake willingly and happily.
Jane’s food was always wonderful. I had fresh artichokes there for the first time. Stuffed vine leaves. Home-made battered fish, actually made by Bob, her husband. They were not big on desserts (probably the best way to be) but the meals were made with care, and cooked in a way that was leisurely, apparently effortless, and always delicious. It was something about the country setting, perhaps. My mother is a terrific cook, but it’s so wonderful to get the chance to live in a home where someone is taking the time to cook fantastic meals that are different from that to which you are accustomed. This aspect of life there stayed with me. I have always been impressed by people who are interested in cooking, and Jane enjoyed it in a way that for me was fascinating and apparently catching. She is one of the people who shaped me as a cook.
And so the dish that I always enjoyed the most there was Pizza Rustica, and it’s a recipe that people are always asking me for. It’s only slightly different from the version Jane made - hers had tomatoes and parsley. The former I think I prefer it without, although they do add some colour, and the latter I happened not to have to hand the first time I made it and never thought it necessary thereafter, but since it's so good for you it may be just as well to include it. Perhaps I will in future. Jane also used 2 eggs but for some reason I only use one. I don't think it makes a huge difference.
It’s an extremely flexible recipe, and all the quantities are negotiable. I usually make two at the same time because the first one is normally inhaled before it has had the chance to be taken out of the tin, and it keeps well for three days, and you can eat it cold, or reheat slices in the microwave. It's also great for a picnic. It works as a summer dish and a winter one. I defy you to find someone who doesn't love it.
250g shortcrust pastry (you can use ready-made or make it from scratch, see below for gluten free pastry recipe)
small pot of full fat cottage cheese (250-300g)
4-5 slices bread, any you like, GF if preferred, ground coarsely into breadcrumbs
400g fresh spinach, wilted, chopped and water squeezed out
1 bunch of spring onions, chopped
150g cheddar cheese
50g of parmesan, optional
2 large handfuls of fresh basil, chopped
2-3 cloves of garlic, crushed
salt and pepper
1. Preheat oven to 180C. Line a springform tin or a quiche/tart tin with two thirds of the rolled out pastry, and prick the base with a fork. Ideally, use a tin measuring between 20-23 cm.
2. Combine all the remaining ingredients together in a bowl and then spoon the mixture into the tin. Cover with the remaining pastry. Sometimes I just leave it open.
3. Cook for about 45 minutes to an hour.
Gluten-free shortcrust pastry
Makes enough for one pizza rustica
200g gluten-free flour (my home-made version is made from arrowroot, rice flour and almond flour (2/2/1) and 2 tsps of xanthan gum)
100g butter, cut into small chunks
couple of pinches of xanthan gum
large pinch of salt
Sift the flour with the salt and xanthan gum into a large mixing bowl, and rub in the butter until you have a crumble like mixture, then beat in the egg with a fork. Now flour your hands and work it for a few seconds. If it looks like it will hold its shape leave it, if it seems dry add water a tablespoon at a time until you have the consistency you want. You can always add a little more flour if you go too far. Then shape into a ball, and flatten it into a disc, wrap in cling film and refrigerate for 30 mins. Then it’s ready to use. It can be more difficult to handle GF pastry, but it doesn't need to be perfect. Mine often ends up a bit of a patchwork. You can just stick pieces into the tin until you have an even surface. It all comes right in the oven!