Butternut and Walnut Ravioli

I’ve only once before attempted to make pasta and it tasted so diabolical that the expensive pasta machine languished in a cupboard for years before being consigned to the bin. So after trying a friend’s home made pasta this week I thought I’d give it another go. But of course not a simple spaghetti for me, no I want to make a ravioli. So I looked through the freezer and found some roasted butternut squash from last autumn’s harvest and in the kitchen cupboard was some walnuts. So I set out making my pasta, which is basically 1 medium sized egg to 100g of 00 flour. I mixed and kneaded the pasta for a few minutes until it formed a nice ball and wrapped in cling film it was popped it into the fridge to rest.

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Next I chopped the walnuts and added them to the butternut which was warming in a saucepan, to this I added some nutmeg and stirred it all together making a bright ball of orange filling. This was put aside to cool.

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I retrieved the chilled pasta from the fridge and set about rolling it out thinly, which is no mean feat on a hot Italian afternoon.

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I cut my pasta into strips and then using a new ravioli cutter I started to assemble the promised pouches of pleasure, however the ravioli cutter broke on the first use and I had to start again with a roller cutter.

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Once I’d made my first ever batch of ravioli, they were popped into the fridge to relax a while and I set a pan of water on to boil and washed fresh sage from the garden.

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With water on a rolling boil they were dropped in with affection as sage butter bubbled on the hob. minutes later they we scooped out and plated up.

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This may not be the most uniform plate of ravioli, or the prettiest, but served with a few shavings of provolone piccante they were devoured with gusto. I don’t think I’m a culinary threat to the local community, but I’m proud I gave making pasta another go.

North to South Sauce

I was thinking about polenta the other day, it’s something I hated until I had it made by an Italian. My first moment of having a good dish was during a Christmas lunch at a local hotel in Fara San Martino. It tasted comforting and rustic, perfect for a chilly December day. I’ve since had it many times in restaurants, but rarely cook it at home. I did once try making it with porcini mushrooms, using the water they’d been rehydrated in. It looked like brown sludge and was consigned to the bin.

In the north of Italy polenta is served with many things but the most famous dish is polenta and sausages, served on vast wooden boards, where the diners all share the meal. I was thinking about having a go at making this when I remembered a friend of mine from Calabria loves sausages. Like all Calabrese they have to be hot spicy ones. So the cogs within my mind began to turn, synapses and neurotransmitters did whatever they’re supposed to do and an idea formed. What if I made a fusion of northern and southern Italian food?

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First I would need something to serve with the polenta so I started to devise a sauce taking in traits from the north. I wanted a homage to Bologna, so a typical Bolognese made like they do up north with good beef mince would be the base, and just like a true Bolognese there’d be no tinned tomatoes or passata, and it has be finished properly with a dash of cream. Now I needed the Calabrese element, so in came the sausages and some sweet fresh Datterini tomatoes and for the heat, chilli and some spicy salami.

So with my idea fully formed I needed to find a victim friend to test it upon, so I called Susie who writes the Abruzzo Dreaming blog and invited her to lunch.

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For my north and south sauce you’ll need:

1 carrot, 1 medium onion and a stick of celery to make the soffritto (I used 200g of frozen pre-packed soffritto from the local supermarket). 1 large red chilli. 12 datterini tomatoes cut into quarters (cherry will do if you can’t get these). 200 ml beef stock (again out of my freezer). 3 garlic cloves. 100g beef mince 100g pork sausage meat 3 slices salami picante (Ventricina is good and is becoming popular in the UK). 2 tablespoons of cream. Couple of sprigs of fresh thyme and salt and pepper to season.

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To start add a little olive oil (not extra virgin) to a pan and add a knob of unsalted butter. Add the garlic cloves whole but slightly crushed as we just want their aroma. Fry the soffritto, tomatoes and chilli and cook until the mixture is soft, then add a splash of Italian bitters, like aperol or bitterol, if you can’t get this, use Campari or a strong red wine. Let the alcohol diffuse then put the mixture to one side.

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To the still hot pan add the sausage meat, mince and spicy salami cut into thin strips and fry without any extra oil, keep making sure you get those caramelised bits from the bottom of the pan incorporated into the mixture.

Season with salt and pepper and then remove the garlic cloves from the cooled soffritto mix, add to this a tablespoon of tomato puree and add to the cooked meat. Stir well and then add the beef stock and bring to the boil. Once boiling turn down the heat and let it simmer for 35 minutes as the liquid reduces.

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During the last five minutes finish with the thyme, which is a nod towards the herby northern cuisine and stir through the cream.

Make polenta as normal using either a vegetable or a beef stock and serve in bowls and tuck in. This recipe could easily feed four people so half was packed away into a plastic carton and stowed away in my trusty freezer for another day when I’m feeling like uniting the north with the south once again.

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It was lovely, and I made a watermelon raita just in case it was too spicy, but the balance was good, so Susie was given the raita to take home.

Time Travelling

Last night whilst watching the BBC program, Second Chance Summer, where a group of English people experience living in Tuscany: The objective of the show is to discover if any of them will choose to remain in Italy. Two did choose to stay but it was a comment one of the women made that struck a chord with me. She said that although she liked being in Italy it was like travelling back in time. At first I agreed, but then I thought saying that could actually be quite insulting, as it could infer that the country hadn’t progressed. (But I’m sure she meant it in a nice way).

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Rural Italy is very different from the urban sprawl of Milan, Turin and the other major cities; in fact the difference between southern and northern Italy is blatantly tangible. Things here in rural communities go on as they have done for decades. Today Mario is in his olive grove pruning his trees as he and his family have done for years. The centre of the tree is opened up to allow air to circulate through the branches giving it the familiar vase shape. You could be forgiven for thinking it’s like travelling back in time but it’s a very different situation. Today Mario is using an electric saw connected to a generator whereas if we went back in time it’d be a hand saw. Today the cut branches will be loaded onto a motorised trailer and taken to his wood store rather than in the past a donkey.

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I think the charm of Italy is that much has remained unchanged, towns are still mostly made up of original old buildings giving it that ancient feel. Take Rome for instance, everywhere you look there’s an old palazzo and terracotta tiled roof. This gives an impression of travelling back in time, however look closer and you’ll spot the satellite dishes and solar panels.

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Here in Abruzzo we’re reminded of the region’s history, the coastline is dotted with trabocchi; ancient fishing stations that are still used today. You’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s a romantic notion to continue with tradition, but you couldn’t be further from the truth. The reason why people still fish from a trabocco is that they’re effective. Olives are maintained as they have always been because it’s a fool proof method of cultivation. Backs ache after plots of land are planted up with tomato and pepper plants as they’ve been for years. At times it’s a hard life but rewarding one, but it’s not like going back in time because as time moves on it’s the tried and tested methods that survive through becoming adaptable.

It’s not Rocket Science

I was watching a British chef on television this week enthusing about risotto; in fact he was making so much noise about it’s preparation that you’d think he was solving complex equations rather than making a simple Italian rice dish. I turned off the TV and went shopping for some ingredients to make my own and so here’s my recipe for pancetta and asparagus risotto with none of the bells and whistles. For this recipe which serves 4 people, you’ll need:

1 red onion. 500g Arborio rice*. 500g asparagus. 100g soft cheese. 100g cubed pancetta. 400 ml vegetable stock and 2 garlic cloves. You’ll need salt and pepper and a squeeze of lemon to season. A glass of white wine and my special asparagus stock.

To make my asparagus stock for extra flavour, Snap off the bottom inch or so of the asparagus using your fingers; the stems will naturally break where the tough woody part ends and the tender stem begins, then cut the green tip from the woody stem and add to 600 ml of boiling water. Let the asparagus cook until the water has reduced by half and the stems are so soft they can be crushed between a finger and thumb. Add to a blender and whizz up into a green liquid.

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Now you’re ready to make the risotto. Chop the onion roughly, no need to create equal sided cubes as years ago I was told by an Italian restaurant owner that risotto should be rustic and comforting. Flash fry the onion and pancetta in a little olive oil (not extra virgin) for 3 or 4 minutes and then put to one side. To the pan add some olive oil and when hot add the rice and the 2 whole garlic cloves, stir the rice until it’s got a coating of oil then add the white wine and stir again before removing and discarding the garlic cloves as we just want a hint of its flavour. Add the pancetta and onion followed by the 300 ml of asparagus broth; don’t go in for all of this a ladle full at a time nonsense, just pour it in and keep the rice moving as it starts to cook.

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When the rice has absorbed the liquid turn the pan on the hob 180 degrees; this stops the rice sticking and burning in one spot of the pan. Add half of the vegetable stock and continue stirring, add salt and pepper to season and repeat when the liquid has been once more absorbed. Once the rice is cooked and the liquid absorbed take it off the heat and add the soft cheese and place a lid or a plate over the pan as it melts into the rice.

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I use stracchino, a young cow’s milk cheese also know as crescenza, if you don’t want to add cheese simply substitute it for 50g of unsalted butter. Once it’s melted I give the pot one final stir and a squeeze of lemon juice and it’s ready to serve up.

I had one lonely slice of ham languishing in my fridge so I ripped it up and tossed this into the pot alongside the onion and pancetta rather than waste it. If you have a few left-over mushrooms you could add these if you like, in fact anything can be added to a risotto to save waste.

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* If you prefer your risotto made with either Roma or Carnaroli rice this is okay, I use Arborio as that’s my personal preference.

There you have it, una ricetta semplice (a simple recipe) for risotto without all the fussing and faffing of a television chef.

Barry’s Apple and Chilli Jam

Twice this week my apple and chilli jam/sauce has been praised so I thought for the friends who asked me how to make it and for any other interested parties I’d share the recipe with you. One day I had some spare apples and as we were having pork that lunchtime I thought about making an apple sauce, but as I don’t really like cooked apples decided to spice it up with some fresh chillies from the orto.

Look on the internet and you’ll find a plethora of recipes for chilli jams and sauces and many use a mix of pepper and chillies whilst others call for garlic or ginger to be added. I guess it’s a matter of taste. My favourite recipe for a chilli dipping sauce rather than a set jam is by Nigella Lawson and I’ve made this many times as it’s as easy to make as lacing a shoe.

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My apple chilli jam is the paler sauce in the right of the picture 

To make 4 – 5 medium sized jars you need: 1kg white sugar, 1 litre of white wine or cider vinegar, 150 – 200 g fresh chillies, 3 fresh green apples (granny smiths are good).

Before you begin sterilise your jars and lids, this can be done in the dishwasher or wash in very hot water. Once cleaned, pop them into preheated oven 140C – 275F (gas mark 1) for 15 minutes to dry out. Once dry handle carefully as they’ll be hot and don’t touch the inside of the jars.

Trim and deseed half of your chillies then chop them.  If you don’t fancy chopping by hand, add the whole lot into a food processor and blitz them. (The seeds from the whole chillies add an attractive look to the finished product). Peel and core the apples but don’t throw any bits away, chop the apple into 2 cm cubes and with the chillies add them into a heavy saucepan with the sugar and vinegar.

As jam makers know to get it to set you need pectin, this is added to pre-packaged jam sugar but in Italy it’s difficult to find it so I used granulated white sugar. As apples have plenty of pectin naturally you shouldn’t have a problem with the setting consistency. I put the peel, pips and cores of the apples to a muslin bag and add this to the mix for added pectin.

Bring to a simmer but don’t stir until all the sugar has dissolved otherwise it can look stringy and won’t cool clear. When the mixture starts to boil, stir it and keep it on a rolling boil for 20 minutes with the occasional stir with a wooden spoon. (Metal spoons can taint the jam).

Test the consistency by dropping a dollop onto a cold saucer out of the fridge. After a minute it should be thick but not set like a jam, if you’d prefer a set jam, bring back to the boil for a few minutes and test again as before. The beauty of this sauce is you can have it as runny like a dipping sauce or hard set like marmalade it’s all about choice.

Remove the bag containing the core and peel and fill the hot jars. Once the lids are on and after a few minutes as the chilli flakes will be at the top of the jars, turn them over onto their lids for 15 minutes and as the mixture cools they’ll redistribute themselves.

That’s it, easy as lacing a shoe.

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The red chilli jam in the picture on the left was made with red wine vinegar, red chillies and to get it to set I added a sachet of shop bought pectin, which can be found in most UK supermarkets and online.

Gnocchetti con Zucca e Gorgonzola

Last week at our favourite restaurant we were served a dish we’d never tried before;  gnocchi with a pumpkin and Gogonzola sauce, so for lunch today I thought I’d have a bash at making it myself.

The ingredients were: 200 ml cooking cream, 200g gnocchetti (small gnocchi), 100g Gorgonzola and 150g of frozen pumpkin.

The pumpkin was from my orto last year literally chopped into cubes and frozen, I defrosted it in a pan over a low heat and it just dissolved into a fine puree. I guess if using fresh you’d need to roast or boil it then puree it. To the pumpkin I added the cream and stirred it until it turned a lovely peach colour.

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I set a pan of water on the hob to boil for the gnocchetti and added the Gorgonzola to the cream and let if slowly melt over a low heat before adding a little black pepper.

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Once the gnocchetti were cooked, takes about 2 minutes I added them to the creamy sauce and ate this quick and easy lunch with relish.

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It’s quite rich but a nice change when you fancy something different with your lunchtime glass of frizzante.

Pasta e Fagioli

Pasta e fagioli, literally pasta and beans, is a classic staple of Italian cuisine and everyone has their own way of making it. Mine is a conglomeration (isn’t that a fabulous word?) of several people’s recipes that I’ve had the pleasure of watching being made and tasting the end product. The dish is a great winter warmer, a hot bowl of comfort food on a cold night, or a super lunch for a spring day.

To make my pasta e fagioli you’ll need:

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80g smoked pancetta. 200g beans dried or tinned. 125 g pasta. 1 medium carrot. Half an onion. 2 celery sticks. 2 garlic cloves. 300 ml water. 2 tbs tomato puree. 1 tsp anchovy paste or two anchovies and for additional seasoning, salt, pepper, sprig of fresh thyme and a splosh of white wine.

Prep the carrot, celery and onion by chopping into even-sized cubes to create the Holy Trinity of Italian cooking, an Italian sofrito which is the base of most soups and sauces here.

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Fry the pancetta in a dry pan until cooked then add a splosh of white wine to deglaze the pan and set aside.

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Add a little olive oil to the pan and fry the sofrito with the whole garlic cloves for 5 minutes. Then add the anchovy and tomato puree and cook it off before adding 300 ml of cold water. Bring to the boil and then dip the thyme into boiling water to start the release of its oils and add it to the pan with a pinch of salt and pepper and simmer for 20 minutes, with the lid on. After 20 minutes the sofrito should be soft so take the pan off the heat and remove the thyme and garlic. The liquid should still be watery, like soup not a sauce.

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I have to admit that I think the recipe works better with real anchovies rather than the paste, however if I open a jar of them within minutes I’ll have scoffed the lot, so I always keep a tube of paste in the cupboard. (If you have an allergy to fish just omit the anchovies from the recipe).

Cook your beans and pasta as per the instructions. I use this as an excuse to use up the last bits of pasta that are knocking around the store cupboard. Today I used some stellini soup pasta, 4 cannelloni tubes broken into pieces and some penne.

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Once the beans and pasta are cooked add them to the dish and either eat straight away or  leave overnight as I think it tastes better the next day, but please note if you plan to eat it the next day you’ll need to add a further 100 ml of water before reheating.

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Selling Houses on Whatsapp

Selling real estate can be very rewarding, especially selling to people who have wanted to own a house in Italy for some time, you could say it’s like selling dreams. Most people I meet are charming and come with a list of likes and dislikes and invariably change their mind once they’re here. This is fine, I did exactly that, initially I wanted a house in town and ended up buying one in the countryside.

You get some people that have such exacting demands that finding them their ideal property can at times be like swimming in honey. But for me, the best part of showing people houses is some of the bizarre questions you get asked. My favourite three thus far are:

1. How loud are the church bells?

2. If I buy a house and invite my family to stay for a holiday, will they like it here?

3. Do you know if the house is haunted?

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The way in which houses sell is changing all the time. Gone are the days of just adverts in estate agent windows, now there’s social media to contend with, having a web presence and regular newsletters to send electronically. I even have an Instagram account which has generated the occasional enquiry from a potential buyer, just from a daily posting of a photograph.

Also the way we communicate has changed, when I purchased my first UK home, it was all done via the Royal Mail, with letters to and from solicitors. When I bought my Italian house it was done via 4 emails and I came here to sign for it. And recently I sold a property solely by communicating with the seller and buyer via Whatsapp – how times change. But I guess if you don’t keep up I guess you get left behind.

Funghi Ripieni

I had a handful of mushrooms sitting doing nothing in my fridge so I thought I’d share with you my recipe for funghi ripieni.

I first fell in love with these delicious bite size treats many years ago. They were a very popular starter on the menu at Roberto’s Pizza House, in Hanley, Stoke on Trent. I never got the recipe for them so here’s my own take on the little stuffed mushrooms.

The ingredients are simply, mushrooms, parsley, garlic, breadcrumbs and dry vermouth.

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Remove the stalks from the mushrooms and retain half of them, (pop the others into the freezer for adding into soups and stews). Finely chop the stalks with 2 or 3 garlic gloves and fry in a little olive oil.

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Add to this breadcrumbs and fresh chopped parsley, then add a good splosh of dry vermouth and keep on the heat for a couple of minutes until the breadcrumbs have browned a little.

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When the mixture has cooled use it to fill the mushroom caps. Don’t over-fill them as they’ll shrink during cooking. Pop them into an ovenproof dish with a drizzle of olive oil and bake for 10 minutes at 180 degrees.

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This may seem to be a lot of effort for a bite size nibble, but believe me they’re well worth it and only really take a few minutes to prepare. I serve them as a canapé with a buffet or 10 of them make a good sized starter for a dinner party.

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