The Freezer Lottery

I’m normally very organised, I have a ‘to do’ do list. I keep a pencil and notebook close at all times and my music collection is stored in chronological order and cross referenced by genre. So you’d expect my freezer to be the same. Sadly no. 

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I’m always saying waste nothing, use everything and freeze for later, but do I mark what I’m storing for ease of recognition at a later date – not always. I did have a period where I used stickers, however today I went to retrieve something and noticed that all the stickers have either fallen off or the writing has disappeared.

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So now it’s a bit of a freezer lottery in our house, it’s a case of guess what’s in the pot or the bag and hope for the best.

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I can guess that if it’s in the top compartment that it’ll be stock, however guessing if it’s chicken, rabbit or goat will be the challenge.

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There are some things that don’t look remotely recognisable, and some that are easily identified, for example the sixty five, one litre bags of homemade passata. However working out if the orange bags contain roasted butternut squash or apricot puree will be interesting if I tip a bag into a stew on the hob.

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It’s not all bad though as one bag of apricot puree still has its sticker intact; so at least the cheesecake I’m planning to make will have a fruit rather than veg based topping.

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Now added to my list of things to do is a note reminding me to purchase a freezer pen for marking all future deposits.

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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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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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Passata Baked Eggs

How many times have you been in the kitchen making lunch and doing something else at the same time? We all lead busy lives and the time constraints of work and family can often mean at lunchtime we just make a quick sandwich or buy something on the go. Here’s one of my easy lunch recipes that’s both filing and tasty and leaves you hands free for most of the cooking process.

This dish was given to me by a friend from Calabria a while back and is great for lunch as it’s rather like having a bowl of soup with some added protein to keep you felling satisfied throughout the afternoon.

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The ingredients are very simple, just 400 ml passata, 2 eggs and cheese; I’m using a 24 month aged Parmesan but any hard cheese like Grana Padano will do as will a mature Cheddar.

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Add the passata, to an oven-proof dish and break the eggs into it, gently move the passata so the egg sinks rather than sits on the top. Give the dish a sprinkling of salt and black pepper and pop it into a pre-heated oven at 180 degrees and leave it for 20 minutes. I’m using some of the passata I made a few weeks ago, for the recipe click here.

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To serve add to warmed bowls and sprinkle with the cheese of your choice and serve with a crusty bread roll. It’s equally lovely topped with chopped chives but doesn’t really work with basil. If you want that authentic Calabrian taste add a generous splosh of fiery chilli sauce, my friend adds so much that he calls his, the Devil’s eggs.

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buon appetito

Zucchine Sott’aceto

At this time of the year courgettes (zucchine) are in great abundance, I’ve already used some from my orto to make spiced Indian chutney and have a few cubed and stored in the freezer for use later in the year. Two of my favourite things to make with courgettes is courgette and mint soup which is delicious hot or cold and zucchine sott’aceto, which translates as courgettes under vinegar.

I was given this recipe by a lady from Naples and it’s so versatile, it can be served as a condiment, as a side vegetable, (goes really well with griddled pork) or as a part of an antipasti platter and it’s great in a cheese sandwich.

It’s so easy to make and has just three ingredients: 1 medium sized courgette, 6 garlic cloves and white wine vinegar.

First slice the courgette into thin strips, if you have a mandolin this will be easy but if not use a sharp knife and don’t worry if they are not uniform, you’ll be eating them not entering them in a beauty competition.

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Splash them with just a drizzle of olive oil, then rub the oil into the slices.

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Heat a dry griddle pan and once hot add the sliced courgettes but don’t crowd them as the water content needs to evaporate and if there’s too many in the pan they’ll steam.

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Once they’ve been charred on both sides add them to a bowl and add a pinch of coarse sea salt.

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Chop the garlic cloves and add to the bowl then cover with just enough vinegar to touch the top layer, then set aside in a refrigerator. After a couple of hours turn them over so the top layer is now in the bottom of the bowl, this means all the slices will absorb the same amount of vinegar.

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This is best made the day before you’re going to use it as it lets the flavours develop. It keeps for up to a week in the fridge, but I’ve found at parties and barbecues it tends to only last a matter of minutes before my guests have devoured it all.

TV Dinners and Earwax. Two Questions

This week as the iPod vainly shuffled and Ozzy Osbourne belted out, Crazy Train, in an attempt to be heard over the din of building work, I watched as the kitchen ceiling was demolished and our third bedroom ceased to be. Gazing up at the rafters of our now doubled in height kitchen I noticed a distinct drop in temperature. Our kitchen has always been the hottest room in the house due to the low ceiling, and during the heat of summer it can be stifling. We had plans to rebuild the third bedroom as a wooden mezzanine occupying only half of the original space. My idea was to have the platform covering the bottom width of the room rather than lengthways, so Enzo the architect has come to see if it can be done. Once again, dressed as if he should be on the set of a 1970’s porn movie, he arrives, looks and tuts quite a lot. “It’s not possible,” he says shaking his head, “This way only.” He indicates lengthways. It turns out the dividing wall isn’t strong enough to support an upper floor without major work being carried out.

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I begin to wonder whether we actually need the third bedroom, when will it be used and by whom? Questions tumble around inside my head like socks on a quick-wash. What will we put up there? Will it be so hot no one will ever be able to sleep in it? Will it make the kitchen space oppressive?  When, what, why, and how appear with speed and each is answered just as quickly. (Who spotted the Oxford comma?) Now as we’ve submitted plans to the comune and they indicate we are replacing the room with a mezzanine we may have a problem. I ask Enzo, who is dressed in a black leather bomber jacket and unbelievably, tight white jeans, if we can leave the mezzanine off the building project. He lifts his mirrored aviator sunglasses and I see his greenish-grey eyes for the first time, (Yes, he is a walking stereotype). “No problem,” he says re-shielding his eyes again, “we’ll tell them it’ll be going in at a later date. You have three years in which to build it, but by then the comune will have forgotten all about it.” So a decision is made, we’ll keep the kitchen as it is with a lofty high ceiling, which will look so much better once the wooden joists have been replaced.

So we’re senza cucina (without kitchen) and dinner time arrives. There’s nothing for it but to eat out. We pop down to our favourite local restaurant, il Buchaniere, (the Buccaneer) and ask for a table. The food here is superb and the service exceptional, part of the reason we love it so much. We are shown to a table Piero tells us what’s on offer today. For primo I order pasta with clams and mussels and for secondo I have a pork steak, with griddled courgette for contorno. (For those wanting to understand the Italian dinner traditions, I’ll be writing an article about this for Italy Magazine in the near future.) With water, wine and a delicious lemon sorbet for dolce, we pay the €25 bill and leave feeling well fed. Now as you saw indicated in the title, this blog post features two questions and here’s the first one. When we arrived at the restaurant and after our order was taken, our waiter turned on the widescreen TV fixed to the wall and walked away as the news aired. This is something that has always puzzled me, why does almost every restaurant have a television playing. We ate at the pizzeria the following evening and their TV was blasting out an Italian situation comedy, and the last time we ate in Lanciano we had lunch accompanied by a pop concert on the flat screen TV on the wall. So if any one out there knows why television’s are always playing in Italian eateries, do please let me know.

My second question has no elaborate build up, or even any back story, it’s just an observation I have made. I believe in this hotter climate I am producing more earwax, it may be a natural defence due to living within a cloud of brick dust during the house renovation or is it the heat. Again if anyone can shine any light upon this I’d be more than happy to hear from you.

Here’s the link to my recent article published in Italy Magazine. Just click and read.