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.

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Quick Pork and Asparagus Lunch

One of the things that I like most about being in middle Italy* is seasonal eating. Italy is much better than the UK for eating what is in season rather than importing from far afield: Now this is only an observation based upon my experience here in Abruzzo. Possibly up in the affluent North there’s supermarkets filled with out-of-season produce meaning the discerning Milanese can have asparagus all year round.

What a coincidence…

It’s asparagus that I’m talking about today – Okay I admit it, that was a tenuous link.

Asparagus is one of the healthiest vegetables out there, it’s low in calories, just 20 per 100g but it’s also high in potassium, b-complex vitamins and other healthy green stuff and it tastes lovely too.

Italian asparagus season starts in March with the local population combing every lane and slice of rough land for the wild variety, which is bitter to the palate and spindly; but good in an omelette with lashings of black pepper and a knob of salted butter. At the moment cultivated asparagus is in abundance; In fact down at our local store it’s just €1.49 a kilo, so it would be silly not to take advantage.

So I got some for the freezer and some to just enjoy while it’s fresh. Now there’s a few folks who say asparagus doesn’t freeze well, but I find if you blanch it for no longer than 2 minutes it keeps well frozen and is then best grilled or oven baked rather than steamed once defrosted.

So today I made a super easy Italian lunch with just three ingredients, (six if you count seasoning – but who’s being pedantic?). So here it is my easy pork and asparagus lunch. (serves one).

The ingredients you will need are:

1 portion of pork steak

30g of Gorgonzola.

8 asparagus spears

1.

See it’s that easy. The only additional things you need are salt, pepper and lemon juice.

Okay as all good cooks know you need to have a soundtrack to create to, and today my iPod is set to play the 17 minute 20 second version of I’m a Man, the 1978 disco classic from the band, Macho. (this works for me on a sunny Monday in Abruzzo, just don’t ask to see the images of me singing and dancing as I cook). So select your cooking music and 2.

let’s get started. Trim off the woody ends of the asparagus and set them aside, I’ll tell you why at the end**. Put a pan of enough water to just cover the asparagus on to boil and add a pinch of salt. Once the water is boiling put in the asparagus and boil for just 4 minutes rinse in cold water to stop the cooking and keep the colour and put them onto one side.

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Heat a non-stick frying pan, do not add any oil and once the pan is hot put in the pork steak and cook, turning it over at intervals until, it is cooked through to your liking. (Despite the traditional way of cooking this meat, I prefer my pork to be a little underdone).

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Once the pork is cooked, set it aside to rest and drop the Gorgonzola into another pan on a low heat. Allow the cheese to start to melt then add the asparagus and cook for 3 minutes giving it a pinch of black pepper. Once the asparagus is coated with the molten blue cheese add to a plate and serve with the pork and give the whole dish a squeeze of lemon, (the juice in a plastic lemon is okay if you don’t have a fresh one to hand).

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Once plated up sit down in front of it and devour your lunch with relish.

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* I call Abruzzo middle Italy but people here refer to it as southern Italy saying the north ends at the Marche border.

** Drop the woody ends into boiling unsalted water and let them boil away for about 20 minutes, they’ll be soft at the end of the boiling, but discard them and keep the water. Let it cool and then freeze it until the next time you’re making a risotto with asparagus, drop the frozen asparagus broth into your risotto for an extra hit of flavour. This also works if you’re making a soup use the frozen asparagus broth as you would a shop bought vegetable stock cube.

Green Pies

Before moving to Italy a pie for me had either steak and kidney or chicken and mushrooms inside. I was never a fan of the British meat and potato pie, it just seemed odd to have a vegetable like the humble potato inside a pastry case and to be honest it felt like a reason to use less meat. But here in Italy they make pies filled with no meat at all and so far I’ve been lucky to have sampled some delicious ones. One of my favourites is artichoke pie (torta carciofo) and the best one I have ever tasted was made by Bruna and served during family lunch with friends in Lanciano.

Before moving from the UK I used to host what I called al fresco day, and I’d invite around thirty friends over and cook for them. During one of these days I did once make Antonio Carluccio’s torta verde (green pie) but my English friends eyed it with suspicion before turning their collective backs upon it. Sad really as it tasted fabulous.

So yesterday I was rifling through the freezer and grabbed some veg and shop bought pastry and  the result was my take on a green pie.

The ingredients were:

600g of frozen spinach

200g of blanched cime di rapa

2 broccoli florets that were rattling around at the bottom of the freezer drawer.

a handful of breadcrumbs

100g grated Italian cheese*

2 eggs

salt and pepper

Sorry that I can’t be precise on ingredients, but I just go by sight.

Cook the greens in a pan of boiling water, then rinse with cold water to retain the colour. Once cold squeeze the living daylights out of it to get rid of all the water. Add to a bowl with cheese, breadcrumbs and 2 eggs, season with salt and pepper and stir the mix together.

Filling

Next take a pack of pre-prepared shop bought pastry (100g) unroll it and line a baking dish that’s been lightly oiled. Don’t worry too much about neatness, as it’s all about taste not presentation. It’s a pie, It doesn’t have to look pretty.

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Once lined add the mix and pat down so there’s no pockets of air.

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Fold over the edges of the pastry, try to cover as much of the pie as you can, but don’t worry too much if there’s a few gaps, a rustic tart can be just as nice as prissy pie. Give it an egg wash then put it into your oven for about 25 minutes until the top is golden brown. I have a temperamental oven so the actual temperature is a mystery to me.

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Once cooked turn it out and let it cool. I know it’s tempting to dive right in but best not as hot pie can play havoc with the soft tissue of your mouth’s interior.

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Once cool, slice and eat at your leisure. It doesn’t last very long in this house to be honest as slices seem to disappear at an alarming rate.

Don’t be tempted to us a good quality parmesan cheese, it’s all about tasting the veggies so a shop bought generic Italian cheese mix will suffice. Other fillings that work really well like artichokes are, asparagus and broccoli, spinach and pine nuts and a mix of cime di rapa, cicoria and radichio which makes a lovely bitter tasting tart best served cold with antipasti.

Generosità

I think the Italian people are inherently a generous bunch. Over the past four weeks I’ve been showered with no end of free things. My builder has brought me bags of De Cecco pasta, croissants and pizza. A neighbour dropped by to welcome us with a bag of fresh eggs and I’ve had two litres of home produced olive oil given to me, not to mention my lovely handmade olive wood hanging basket. All of these things have been greatly and graciously received. One thing I have noticed that the Italians are very generous with is advice. Everyone has the answer to any little problem, and despite everyone’s answers being different, theirs is always the definitive one.

I’ve had advice about foraging and had the results for dinner, I’ve been directed to shops that will save me money rather than using the large supermarkets and even had three different people ask if I’d like to buy their house for a very good price. Because I already live here, I am entitled to get it at a discount unlike a foreigner who’ll have to pay more for it. I’ve politely declined all three offers, much to the sellers amazement; Why wouldn’t I want a second house a few kilometres away, Italians have more than one – I really am a pazzo straniero, (crazy foreigner)

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Last night I was watching a DVD when at 9.00 there was a knock at my door, at first I was quite shocked, as we’re so remote you don’t expect visitors to arrive unannounced. I open the door and its Nicolo from the farm down the lane. “Genziana, un regalo per te.” (Genziana, a gift for you). I take the little bottle from him and thank him, he squeezes my hand and wishes me a good night, calling me his new friend. I close the door and say to my other half, “See it pays to be friendly with the locals.” Genziana, is a straw coloured liqueur made from the roots of the gentian plant. It’s drank as a digestivo after dinner and has a bitter, herbal taste. This gift is obviously homemade as it’s in an old beer bottle with a plastic stopper. As I’m not really keen on it, I shall save it for visitors and stick with grappa and my own homemade limoncello.

I was waiting in line today in the post office, when a young girl came in and gave everyone that was waiting a small polystyrene cup with a shot of espresso inside. Now she could obviously have looked at me and assumed that being a foreigner I’d not want a shot of the rocket fuel, but no, she didn’t even enquire if I’d like one, she just handed me my cup and along with the Italians in the queue, I thanked her and enjoyed my mid-morning coffee, feeling very much an accepted part of village life here in Abruzzo.

Later, in the afternoon, a car pulls up and its our builder’s wife, she arrived with dolce (sweet.) So we all tuck into a slice of soft brioche style cake and munch sugar coated almonds as we stand around gabbling away like turkeys, while the iPod shuffles and fortuitously Mac and Katie Kissoon sing Sugar Candy Kisses

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04.05.13: Last night I decided to post this addition to my blog when there was a knock at my door, I opened it to find Michele there with another handful of wild asparagus for me. I’ll have to think of a way of repaying all this kindness.

The Foraging Foreigner

Saturday afternoon, 13 April 2013. The temperature is 23C and my friend Michele is passing on his daily walk with his dog, Bobby. We chat in the lane and he points to something in the hedgerow, “Wild asparagus,” he says as he picks two lanky spears and hands them to me. Every day, the lane up to out house is visited by locals with carrier bags, they can be seen scanning the land for free food. Foraging is a part of the Italian way of life, and this time of the year they are out looking for the asparagus. I often cut rosemary from the fragrant bushes in the lane, or pick borage flowers to freeze in ice cubes; ideal for dressing up a gin and tonic and I’ve also collected the leaves from the wild garlic. But that has been my limit. “I’ll show you,” Michele says, “It’s important to do it right.” The first rule is you must wear long sleeves so that you don’t get scratched. I’m wearing a T-shirt so have fallen at the first fence, so to speak.

With Bobby following behind we climb up the side of lane into the greenery and head up an incline as we head towards the olives. Michele points out what looks like a fern and tells me that this is the main part of the plant. Very quickly he spots the thin spears and picks them and hands them to me. I peer into the undergrowth and can see nothing, I’m staring like a man possessed and Michele points, “There.” I still can’t see anything and he deftly steps forward and plucks three spears. “Years of practice,” he laughs. We continue through the olives and he tells me that it is important to wear sturdy shoes. I’m wearing canvas pumps: Fail number two.

We scramble through a thicket of spiny leaved bushes, and are beside the ruins, Michele finds more asparagus and I find scratches on my arms. There’s two spears near a huge cactus, Michele clip_image001hands me Bobby’s rope to hold and he clambers onto the cactus, it’s not sturdy and it is very spiny. I wonder at the need to put yourself in danger just for two measly strips of vegetation. But I guess historically feeding the family was of prime importance and the life of a contadino, (peasant farmer) was hard, so every morsel must have counted. We carry on searching and I find my first patch and feeling like I’ve achieved something I pluck the green stalks from the earth.

As we reach the dirt track Michele tells me that the asparagus won’t be found here, as it grows in the shade and doesn’t flourish in the heat too, so it’s pointless going any higher up the hill where there are no bushes. He stops to point out some mushroom and tells me that they are deadly and I mustn’t even touch them. We walk through a patch of purple coloured orchids and he spots more bounty beneath a young fig tree. The bundle in my hand is now quite large, and he tells me, “That’s enough, only take what you need, leave the rest for another family.” He then tells me that I really shouldn’t wear thin cotton trousers when walking in the fields as I could end up with a tick on my skin. Fail number three.

“Thick jeans are better,” he says. Then rolls up the left leg of his and shows me a scar where he was bitten by a tick a year ago and had to go to the hospital to have it removed and four stitches put into the wound. He looks down and there’s blood on the back of his hand, he’s got a small black one of the dreaded ticks attached to his skin. “This is how you kill a tick,” he tells me as he drops it onto a stone and taking another stone crushes the beast. “Don’t stamp on it, it might get wedged in the sole of your shoe and survive, and you’ll then take it into your home.”

We chat in the lane and he tells me how to cook this feast we’ve collected, plenty of salted water, boil for just a few minutes add to some garlic and butter and lightly fry then toss into the pan some cooked spaghetti with a drizzle of good olive oil and serve. I tell him I’ll do exactly as he says and let him know how it tastes. He then randomly tells me he had a prostate operation the previous year and waves as he continues walking Bobby.

I cut the woody stems from the bundle and cook as directed and have to say it’s tasty, a tad bitter, but not dissimilar to the asparagus I’ve had in the UK.

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The following day, I see three people in the lane scouring the hedgerows, and as I watch them picking asparagus Michele turns up to ask if I liked my dinner last night. I tell him I did and before he continues on his way, he says remember, sleeves, shoes and jeans