Fusion. Not Confusion.

Another food post I’m afraid.

This week I was wondering what to make for lunch and a quick look in the fridge revealed a cauliflower, chicken thighs and some caciocavallo cheese: Caciocavallo meaning ‘cheese on horseback’ is a sheep or cow’s milk cheese that is good for melting. I’m not keen on it melted on toast, I still prefer a mature Cheddar, but it’s good melted on pizza or as I’m about to find out, on cauliflower. I set the iPod to play and Poly Styrene’s album Translucence starts to play, the opening bars of Essence give me an idea so I grab a little packet of Moroccan spices I got a few months back and my mind starts to go into creation mode.

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First I separate the cauliflower florets and pop them into boiling water to blanch for 5 minutes. Next the chicken breasts are placed into an oven-proof dish and have a dusting of black pepper, cinnamon, Himalayan salt and garlic salt followed by a drizzle of olive oil. Next I make a spiced paste for the cauliflower. To a bowl I add a tablespoon of honey, 3 teaspoons of the Moroccan spice, 1 teaspoon of fennel seeds and the juice of half a lemon.

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The oven is set at 180 (fan) and the chicken breasts are covered with tin foil and popped inside. The cauliflower is drained and covered in the spice mix and then placed into an oven-proof dish and placed inside the oven to roast alongside the chicken. After 20 minutes I remove the chicken and drain off any juices and put these aside to freeze for a tasty base for a brodo, soup or risotto.

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The chicken needs just 7 minutes cooking uncovered to crisp up the skin, so I slice some of the cheese and place it on top of the cauliflower and return it to the oven.

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After resting the chicken for a couple of minutes the cheese has melted into the cauliflower so the final job is just plating up, sitting down and eating it. It made a great midweek lunch with enough cauliflower left over to freeze or to have the following day.

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Stinco

As autumn takes over here in Abruzzo restaurant menus start to change to accommodate the season, warm bowls of polenta and sausages start to appear on tables and stinco makes its appearance on menus.

Stinco, or to give it its full name, stinco di maiale is a pork shank, or rather the shin bone and is a wonderful piece of comfort food for a cold evening. It’s sold all year round here in Italy in butchers shops (macelleria) but around October it appears in abundance even in a pre-cooked packaged form.

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In butcher’s shops and supermarkets it comes skinned and trimmed ready for the oven. Stinco is less fattier than a traditional hock and whereas a hock requires around 3 hours or more of slow roasting a stinco cooks in half the time. Most Italians cook it with potatoes seasoned with rosemary and garlic; a popular recipe that originated from the northern region of Trentino-Alto Adige with its Southern Tyrol/Austrian influences.

In a local restaurant a typical autumn/winter dinner could consist of a first course of pasta with a meaty sauce or polenta and sausages followed by a second course of stinco with vegetables and potatoes. One local pizzeria in the latter part of the year sells hundreds of them roasted and served with chips for just €5.  

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The pre-cooked ones take just 30 minutes to cook in boiling water, it’s a case of drop the bag into a saucepan of water and simmer, then snip off the top and tip out onto a plate and watch as the meat just falls off the bone. These are great to have stocked up for times when the snow causes power cuts as they can be cooked on top of the wood burner and tonight we had one with roasted potatoes and red cabbage and apple.

Comfort food? – Oh yes.

Agriturismo Abruzzo

Italian cuisine is rated highly throughout the world and living in Italy means I’m never far from an excellent restaurant. Last week a party of us went to a local agriturismo for dinner to celebrate a friends birthday.

The word agriturismo comes from the combination of agriculture and tourism. Agriturismi (plural) receive tax incentives and must therefore qualify for these. According to national law: Legge 20 February 2006, n.96, to qualify 51% of your income must come from farming with the remaining 49% made up from holiday letting, providing recreational or educational farm visits and of course catering.  If meals are offered, foods must include products produced by the farm or by local cooperative of which the farm is a member.

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In 2015 we visited Agriturismo Travaglini which is near Casoli and since then have tried many others in the local area. When we were talking about which one to go to, we all agreed that it was at the Traviglini family’s agriturismo where we had eaten the best food previously, so without hesitation we booked a table.

We arrived to a warm welcome from Claudia, who then introduced us to her parents Antonio and Maria and then explained to us how she’d be cooking the main course on the open fire. Which is a round dish placed under a cover and the charcoal and wood placed around it and on top.

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We settled at the table and after wine and water had been served the dishes started to arrive. Antipasti comprised of home made salami, cheese and cured meats, toasted cheese and other goodies also arrived. We were delighted with the polenta with sausage; most of our group don’t usually eat it as it can be grainy but this was as smooth as a perfect mashed potato. Cheese and egg balls with aubergine arrived and we chatted as we ate from this menu of many treasures, before the pasta with a broccoli sauce arrived.

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Our main course of potatoes and pork was served with crisp green beans and aubergine and as we ate the conversation stopped and the room fell silent. The potatoes were fluffy on the inside and roasted perfectly and the meat just fell away from the bone. It was perfection in a roasting tin.

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Fruit followed for dolce and then Claudia arrived with a birthday cake and a bottle of Prosecco. At the end of the evening we had enough space left to fit in a grappa and a coffee before we left feeling full and completely satisfied.

If you’re in the area and want to experience real Abruzzese cooking and hospitality then I can whole heartedly recommend Agriturismo Travaglini, you won’t be disappointed. But call to book a table first and make sure you’ve an empty stomach.

Agriturismo Travaglini. Via Piano delle Vigne 65, 66043 Casoli

Courgette and Lemon Cake

Yesterday at the supermarket we ran into a friend who had been working in her orto and she kindly gave us some of her surplus round courgettes. So when I got home I looked at these lovely sunshine coloured globes and wondered what to do with them. Then the word, cake popped into my head and I thought: I know, I’ll make a carrot cake but without carrots I’ll use courgettes.

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So I adapted my carrot cake recipe and here’s the ingredients: I used:

350g grated courgettes. 200g soft brown sugar.  300g plain flour. 2 tsp baking powder.      3 eggs.125ml sunflower oil. 1 tsp butterscotch essence. Zest of a lemon. Juice of half a lemon.DSCF2250

First squeeze as much water out of the grated courgettes then add them to a bowl alongside the oil, eggs, sugar and lemon juice and zest. I added the butterscotch essence as I had no vanilla, but to be honest it didn’t add anything to final cake flavour. Mix together then fold in the flour and baking powder, but don’t over mix it.

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    Make sure you have the oven pre-heated to 180C (160C fan) gas mark 4. Grease and line the base of your chosen cake tin and fill with the cake mixture.

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Bake in the middle of the oven for 40-45 minutes until it’s golden coloured and the kitchen smells all nice and cakey. (that’s a correct technical term – Mary Berry told me)*

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Similar to carrot cake it’s a dense crumbed cake but unlike carrot cake I decided not to do a cheese frosting and opted for Mary Berry’s recipe for lemon drizzle, which is 50g of granulated sugar and juice of a lemon. Mix together and pour over the warm cake. Let it cool and then scoff at will.

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* blatant lie

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.

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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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.

Snow and Stew

As most of Europe is currently under attack from Arctic blasts and ‘thundersnow’ we didn’t escape it here in Abruzzo. The snow is finally thawing following a seven-day period of deep deposits. It all looked very pretty, but it was so deep in places that villages were cut off, not to mention water pipes frozen and electricity lines going down.

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So trapped at home until the lane can be cleared I turned to passing the time getting used to induction cooking. We don’t have mains gas in our lane and have used a gas bottle cooker for the past few years, it was sufficient for our needs until in autumn a field mouse took up residence in the back and chewed through the pipe to the oven. Now I have a nice fan-assisted electric oven I thought it may be a good idea to go all electric to remove the need to buy and store gas bottles. I was helping a friend prepare lunch using her induction hob and was so impressed I went out and got myself one. I then spoke with another friend who had a double hob for sale, and so now I am learning to use them and thus far I’ve been impressed with the speed of cooking and the control of the heat.

So I decided this week to use the hob for something more challenging than an omelette or boiling pasta and set to making a stew, as everyone knows snow and comfort food go together really well. So here’s my recipe for a veal stew. (serves 4)

The ingredients are:

400g veal. 2 small onions. 300 ml passata. 160 g mushrooms. 200g carrots. 2 tablespoons of tomato puree. 500 ml home made veg base.

In the late 1970’s people became outraged to discover the veal they were eating was produced by keeping calves in the dark inside boxes to restrict movement. This led to a rapid decline in the UK for veal consumption, even now very few butcher’s shops openly sell it. However here in Italy I purchase what we now call rose veal, its male calves that have been raised until they are 8 months old rather than being culled at birth. It’s not a pale as milk fed veal but tastes very good. If veal still isn’t your thing substitute it for pork in this recipe.

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Cut the meat into bite size pieces and brown it off in small quantities and add to the stew pot.

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Chop the onions and sweat them off in a frying pan for a minute or so, then add the tomato puree and cook it off.This sweetens the onions and helps to pick up the pieces of veal that have caramelised in the pan earlier.

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Chop the carrots: I chop alternate sections diagonally as you get an interesting shape that also has a larger surface area so cooks quicker and evenly.

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Add to the pot a liberal amount of garlic powder, black pepper and a good pinch of chilli flakes. Following this add the passata; shop bought is okay or make your own, it’s so easy. My recipe is here. Following this add 500ml of stock or home made veg base.

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As I hate waste, what I do is add what left over veg I have to a pan of water and boil it all together. This one was made from a couple of cabbage leaves, a carrot, half an onion and a few celery sticks. Boil it all together then blend it and bag it and store in the freezer until you’re making a stew or soup. Much better for you than shop bought stock, full of chemicals and salt.

Bring the pot to the boil and then turn the heat down and let it simmer until the carrots are softening; this took just 15 minutes on the induction hob. Then add a splash of white wine followed by the mushrooms and continue to simmer until everything is cooked through and the carrots still have a little bite. serve with mashed potato and sit beside the log burner watching the snow fall as you eat this comforting stew.

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One other thing – this is also amazing if reheated the following day. Buona cena a tutti.