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.

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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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Polyglot Lane

I always expect to be speaking two languages when I’m in the office dealing with my Italian colleagues and speaking with our English clients, but not very often is it a requirement of dog walking.

Today I’m taking our youngest dog, Alf Alf for his walk and the first person I see in the lane is the English builder working on my neighbour’s house, I stop and we pass the time of day. I continue on down the lane when driving towards me is my friend Nicola and we have a quick chat in Italian.

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The weather’s good so we walk further down the lane than usual and I spot a couple from a nearby village who have a holiday home here and we converse with a few English pleasantries before my friend Giuseppina calls to me. She only speaks dialect and we manage a short cobbled together conversation before it’s time to turn around and walk Alf Alf back home.

I’m sure moments like this are quite common for anyone living in another country where the language is different from their own.

And it’s moments like this that make living abroad special.

The Naked Crime Fighter

To be honest the title of today’s instalment is a little bit off the mark, but not enough for it to be click bait, but it does sound better than the semi-naked crime fighter.

So, just who is this naked fighter of crime?

Me.

It was Wednesday night and I was retiring to my bed when I saw headlights shining from the rear of my neighbour’s property. Now the property in question is empty as they’re having building work completed at the moment so this car raises my suspicions. I opened a window and could hear voices over the running engine. So I leapt into action and grabbed a pair of pyjama bottoms and a torch and exited the house at speed to confront the assumed thieves. As I ran along the lane I realised that shoes or at least slippers would have been a good idea, but it’s too late now.

I arrive at the house and the vehicle’s headlights illuminate two bemused looking Italian men, who from their point of view are being approached by a semi-naked man in pyjama bottoms waving a torch and looking like he’s escaped from a high security mental health establishment.

“What’s going on?” I say, trying to sound in control yet now realising this could probably be the most stupid thing I’ve ever done. They then smile, big toothy grins that threaten to slice their faces in two, “We’re here delivering sand for the builder.” Is their reply.

I smile too, say something inane along the lines of, “Okay, have a good evening,” and shuffle back up the lane, vowing to give up crime fighting, now knowing that I’ve given two delivery men something joke about in the bar.

Oh the shame…

Cover Up

I had a private message from a user on Instagram this week, he said what disco song are you listing to at the moment. Now this may seem a random question to ask a stranger, but he’s obviously ready my mini bio on my account which says, “Englishman in Abruzzo working in Italian real estate who likes the occasional Aperol spritz and classic disco tunes.” So I responded saying I was listening to How Much, How Much I Love You by Love and Kisses, a group put together by European music producer Alec Costandinos and it was only after I’d responded that I looked at the album cover for this 3 track album which features the famous nude on a horse.

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Back in the 1970’s at the hieght of the disco movement the album covers were deliberately sexy with some almost bordering on soft porn, take the first Love and Kisses album with the ripped T-shirt and men’s hands.

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Looking at these album covers I think it’d be fair to say that they were more than likely designed by men. Back in the 1970’s these covers were seen as fun and saucy but would that be the case today? I doubt it, women’s groups would be shouting about exploitation and the negative messages these images promote.

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Whether you approve or not they’re a great piece of social history, they say much more about this period in our musical history than words can. They tell us that disco went hand in hand with sex. Dancing in itself is primal and all that bumping and grinding down the disco could easily put you in the mood for a horizontal bed sheet boogie.

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The flashing of flesh wasn’t solely reserved for the female of the species and back in 1977 Bobby Farrell was happy to get his chest hair out and don a golden thong for the cover of the second Boney M album. However it was deemed to be too raunchy for the U.S. and Canadian market and they opted for an alternative cover. It didn’t have the same impact somehow.

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However disco wasn’t the sole domain of the dodgy cover, back in 1965 Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass released their Whipped Cream album with its blatantly sensual if not rather naff cover.image

Disco was loved in the gay clubs and so there was bound to be a plethora of covers sporting homoerotic images. Men in leather, hairy chests and handlebar moustaches. One of the best was for the Italian/American band, Macho and their Roll album cover and I remember seeing it sat on the shelves of some record stores inside brown paper bags.

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There are examples out there of covers with hairy chested guys that make you just think,  ‘for goodness sake man, put a shirt on.’ Not to mention, ‘Where are you going to ‘Push Push’ that flute?’

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The disco backlash came and by the early 1980’s it was starting to fade, dance music became formulaic and homogenised and flesh was replaced by rah rah skirts and neon coloured clothing. Nudity became more about art than sex.

But I quite like the old covers and am happy to see them pop up on my iPod display as songs shuffle. But I can’t leave you without showing you one of the howlers out there. A cover that in my opinion should never have been released, but I’m guessing none of the band especially the guy top right saw this one before it was printed and dispatched.

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It’s All About Perspective

What a time of it we’ve been having here in Abruzzo lately. Snow came and within an afternoon many towns and villages were cut off, our collection of houses overlooking the valley was stranded for 5 whole days as the lane was impassable; even taking the dog for a walk in the deep snow was a challenge.

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Along with the inconvenience of snow we had power cuts, with as many as 100,000 homes without electricity for days. Water pipes froze, people lost their broadband connections and then came the rain. A deluge of epic proportions that threatened to be second only to the rains Noah had experienced turned the fields into swamps, the lane ran like a river and mud slid onto the now flooded roads.

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During these frustrating times did we moan and complain? You bet we did, when people were able to get onto social media there were angry posts about the electricity suppliers, gripes about how we were sick of snow now and woe is me postings about having to cook dinner on top of the log burner: That one was mine – ironically after posting my moan to Facebook and served up said dinner by torchlight, the electricity came back on just as I was about to eat.

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After the snow had cleared I had clients over to view properties, (which is no fun in the rain). As the viewings with one lady started there were reports of earthquakes near Amatrice where there’d been a devastating one back on 25 August last year. My client told me a woman at her hotel had asked her why she was here in Abruzzo, she told her she was here to hopefully find a house as she plans to move to the area. Her enquirer then asked why she wasn’t worried about the earthquakes*. She told me her response was – “It’s all about perspective. I live and work in central London where there’s more risk of me being a fatality of crime or a victim in a terrorist attack than perishing in an earthquake.” – Brilliant response I thought.

* News companies in the UK have been reporting earthquakes in Abruzzo, sadly their reporting is flawed as the earthquakes occurred in the Lazio region.

So, yes it’s fair to say we’ve endured a lot this year thus far; it has been one of the worst winters in many years. My friend Mario said he remembers a winter where there was bad snow, torrential rain and earth tremors, but seeing as he’s in his mid eighties and his recollection takes him back to being a small boy, they’re frankly few and far between.

So yes let’s put it into perspective, we all moaned and griped about the snow for six or seven days and in the grand scheme of things seven days out of 364 isn’t bad going, that leaves us hopefully with 357 snow-free days. Rain may be unpleasant but there’s many more unpleasant things out there to feel aggrieved about. IMG_1172

There were issues with some electricity pylons being badly damaged by the weight of the snow, and some land slippage, but on the whole Italy is quite good when snow hits; roads are cleared quickly and close-knit communities care for each other.

But sadly this winter has brought tragedy in the form of the Hotel Rigopiano avalanche in the mountain town of Farindola, so putting it into perspective, a day without electricity or a few hours without broadband aren’t as Shakespeare said, the be all and the end all

But will we moan if it happens again – you bet we will, we’re only human after all.

Quick and Easy Ribs

Last week I posted a photo on Facebook of some stick ribs I’d made for dinner. A friend back in the UK said to me that he loved ribs but couldn’t be bothered with all the effort to make them, I said there’s not much effort in ribs really. He talked about hours of marinating and then a long slow cooking time, not to mention the problem of cleaning the burnt bits off the baking tray. I laughed and told him my ribs take about 35-40 minutes from start to finish. He suggested I write about it here and share the recipe for him to try.

So this is my version of sticky ribs and the ingredients used, however as I make it by eye there’s no exact measurements.

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First thing I do is put the ribs into a saucepan of water with 3 or 4 star anise and bring to the boil, then simmer for 20 to 25 minutes while the sauce is made. The sauce is as follows: 1 teaspoon of English mustard, a good slosh of tomato ketchup, a few dashes of balsamic vinegar, a squirt of lemon, a hearty drizzle of honey. To this add black pepper, a teaspoon of ground cumin, a glug of chilli oil, (I use my own Olio Santo) if you don’t have chilli oil then dried chilli will do. I then add some ground star anise and a splash of red wine. Mix all of this together to make a loose paste.

Remove the ribs from the pan and dry them on kitchen paper then line a baking tray with baking parchment; you’ll see why later.

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Place the tray on a top shelf in a pre-heated oven, 200 degrees (180 for fan-assisted) and bake them for 15 minutes. Once the ribs are cooked remove from the oven and remove from the baking parchment. You’ll see that they come away easily and retain most of the sauce that usually sticks to the metal tray.

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Dispose of the parchment and you have a tray that needs just a quick wash: no scrubbing away welded on sauce. The only thing left to do is enjoy eating the ribs which are great with a cold beer.

Summer Out of Season

“Would you like a cup of home made spicy butternut and tomato soup?” I asked my friend a week ago on a damp and dismal January morning. “Yes please,” she replied. then went on to enquire from which shop I obtained the butternut from. “You grew them yourself?” she asked after I told her that they had come from my orto. She blew across the surface of her mug of soup and took a sip before saying, “Wow, this tastes just like summer.”

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In my work I visit many properties and I’ve seen many Italian pantries stocked with jars of blood red passata and others filled to the brim with dried beans. I’ve been inside cool cantine with home made salumi* hanging from the ceiling and inside airy sheds where tobacco hangs drying in the air. Italian’s are ingenious when it comes to getting the most out of their orto and they have an almost religious devotion to processing and storing produce for the leaner months. I’ve adopted this attitude and when the weather’s bad it’s very satisfying to make a meal using an ingredient that months ago was basking in the summer sun.

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My neighbour’s cantina

I was talking about this with my friend who told me she’s not organised enough to do this and doesn’t have a cantina to store things in. So I showed her the contents of my freezer where I have saved the taste of summer for the colder seasons.

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I explained that if you roast and mash the butternut or pumpkin it’s easy to store flat in freezer bags. I then showed her my 2 person portions of frozen passata that line the bottom of every freezer draw and the pots of ready made soups from when there was a glut of one or another veggie in the orto.

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Not only is it about storing what you grow but also making use of everything, I often use the bones or chicken carcass after a roast dinner to make stock, which is stored away in the freezer along with frozen basil and parsley butter. I came here a novice to preserving food and now it’s quite normal to find me making up jars of chilli jam when the plants are aflame or apple and peach chutney.

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“So what’s next?” my friend asks. I explain that this year I dried out my own French beans and have several jars of the tiny black pulses, sat on a shelf alongside sun-dried oregano. “This year,” I tell her, “I’m going to have a go at sun-dried tomatoes.

* Salumi is the Italian word for processed meats like hams, salami and most meats you’ll find in the delicatessen.