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.

Octopus and Oyster

I’ve always considered myself adventurous when it came to food and like most people growing up in the UK I’ve been lucky enough to sample dishes from all over the world. Whether its Indian, Chinese, Turkish or Greek. I recently tried Japanese food for the first time, because England is a great country for international restaurants. I’ve also been lucky enough to travel and in doing so I’ve eaten durian fruit in Kuala Lumpur, nasi goreng in Bali, tabouleh in Oman and a thousand year egg in Singapore. Some of these have been culinary delights and others horrors, In fact some of the worst food I’ve ever had the misfortune to be served was in the US. But there is yet one thing I have an aversion to trying, and I’ve been up close and personal with it several times and each time I tell myself I’ll give it a go, and each time I shy away from it. It, being the humble oyster. I’ve been given them fresh in the shell in France and smoked in New Zealand, but for some reason I am just unable to put the darned thing in my mouth. And believe I’ve had  number of unmentionable things between my lips over the years.

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I’ve always had a passion for Italian food, which is I suppose a good thing considering I chose to live in Italy. I’m not talking about just pasta and pizza, not that there’s anything wrong with a slice of pizza. I mean traditional Italian food. I’m knowledgeable enough to know that there’s no tomato in a ‘proper’ bolognaise sauce and that mussels are served with fettuccini and clams with spaghetti. For many people back in the UK, their first experience with Italian food comes from and encounter with a lasagne; whether pre-packed or in a restaurant, but is it authentic? probably not, in Italy a proper lasagne isn’t made with minced beef, but with  minced pork or sometimes a mix of pork and lamb. funghi-trifolati

Back in the Britain, TV chefs and celebrity restaurants have made Italian cuisine cool again, and plates are leaving kitchens with miniscule portions of ravioli served with truffle oil complete with a top draw price. At one of these restaurants, belonging to a celebrity chef who’ll remain nameless I was served a simple but costly dish of pasta con funghi trifolati. Was it authentic? Was it buggery. (Apologies for my northern roots.) In Piedmonte, funghi trifolati is served with spaghetti or polenta, this was served with pappardalle and the sautéed mushrooms should have chopped parsley in abundance, as it’s a key ingredient not just for garnish. But is this detail important? Yes, especially if you’re paying a chef to prepare it for you while you apply to the bank for a mortgage to pay for it. This said in Italy there’ll be regional variations of most of the dishes we see in restaurants and on supermarket shelves, but what we see in the UK is just a tiny portion of the Italian cuisine. As most of it is regional it would be impossible for suppliers and manufacturers to provide a concise catalogue.baby-octopus-salad-550x403

I live just eighteen minutes from the coast so as you’d imagine seafood and fish features highly in the local diet. Now I’ve always been a meat eater and not a big fish eater, I do like some seafood but am not too keen on prawns, so imagine my surprise when recently I was served up squid and octopus. I looked at the baby, purple-coloured octopus on my plate and thought I was in for another oyster moment, but no I popped it into my mouth, chewed and swallowed without any problem. In fact the only problem was I liked it so much I’ve eaten it several times since, who knows maybe one day that darned oyster will go down and stay down.