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.

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.

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.

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.

Fishy Friday’s

Growing up in England and miles away from the coast meant that I didn’t eat much fish: in fact I was once given a fish finger as a child and recoiled in horror. Apart from tinned tuna, mussels and the occasional fish supper I didn’t eat very much fish. But now living just 18 minutes from the sea means it’s a different story. Whereas I’d probably eat fish 2 or 3 times a year now it’s 2 or 3 times a week. I’ve discovered that I like octopus and calamari, I still don’t really like prawns and people I cannot be trusted with an unopened jar of anchovies.

Friday at an Italian restaurant definitely means there’ll be fish on the menu and whenever I can I like to drop into our local, aptly named, Il Bucaniere, (the Buccaneer). The reason being I can always guarantee to get frittura di pesce. Last week we dropped in for lunch which costs just €10 a head, and for this you get wine, water and 2 courses.

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Lunchtimes are always busy with Friday’s being the busiest. To help out the menu for the day is written up on a chalk board beneath the TV, (Italian’s and TV’s in restaurants, that’s a whole post of its own). To guarantee a table we arrive early and already the seating area at the back of the restaurant is full. We settle into our seats out at the front and the service is swift. We decide to try something we’ve not seen on the menu before and within minutes the most comforting dish of polenta with a rich fish flavoured sauce and mussels arrives. Wow, this is a taste surprise.

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The second course I have ordered is the frittura di pesce, deep fried calamari and small fish. It’s a fiddly dish to eat but if you go native and use your fingers then it’s easy to strip the fish from the bones, and no one is looking at you because they’re all too engrossed in their own plate of superbly cooked fish. I save a few of the calamari tentacles until last as they’re my favourite part of the dish.

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Our table is cleared and as we pour the last of the wine into glasses we make appreciative noises about how good it feels to be full of Friday’s fish.

Counterfeit Porchetta

Last week my cousin came to stay with us, it was his first trip to Abruzzo and we tried to fit as much as we could into his 7 day stay. We enjoyed trips out, seafood by the sea and a day in Rome too. One of the pleasures was introducing him to the joy of aperitivi and it was during an early evening Aperol spritz that the aroma of Italian porchetta wafted across the street to the bar.

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  Parked across the road was a mobile porchetta van, I checked that it was the local one that supplies the best Italian pork in the region. Happily, it was the one I hoped for, so I wandered over and purchased a tray, stealing a slice before joining the others and returned to my drink.

  The aroma drove my cousin wild and we informed him that it was out of bounds until the following day when were planning a beach picnic. Not being thoroughly rotten I allowed him a small morsel for tasting, this however went from a polite gesture to torture, as he had to endure the 14 hour wait for the delicious meat inside the parcel.

I love porchetta, the blend of herbs and slow roasted pork with crunchy crackling is the best street food when simply served between two slices of bread.

So thinking back, I thought I’d share my recipe for what I call, counterfeit porchetta. It’s my take on the dish and suitable for both a snack or dinner with friends.

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For my recipe I start with the following herbs and spices, as shown opposite. Fresh rosemary, sage, thyme and mint. Dried chillies, fennel seeds and star anise and some fresh garlic cloves.

Take a mortar and pestle and add the fresh herbs into a the bowl with a tablespoon of sea salt. Using the pestle crush and grind the leaves and garlic*, then add the remaining spices and continue to grind them. add a little olive oil and continue until you get a rustic, but not too smooth paste.

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Take your piece of pork and place it into an ovenproof dish; I’m using a 1.25 kg piece of fillet here. Smear the paste all over the meat: the only way to do this is with your hands as you can massage it in to the pork. Add two tablespoons of water to the dish, return the pork and cover with foil and let it sit in the fridge for eight hours absorbing the flavours of your paste.

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    Italian butchers tend to cut most of the fat from fillets of meat, so this recipe won’t have crispy crackling like porchetta should have but it will have the flavours, hence my calling it counterfeit porchetta.

  Preheat the oven to 190 degrees and roast for 45 minutes.

 

When roasted, let it rest for 10 minutes before cutting into thick slices and serving with roast potatoes and vegetables or hot between two slices of crusty bread with a drizzle of olive oil.

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* There’s no need to peel the garlic as the paper coating will burn away during the roasting process.

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

Sauce for the Year

Despite always making passata when required, back in 2013 I wrote a post about not being bothered with making my own tomato sauce in bulk. Since then I have seen the error of my ways and have been making a years supply each season. Back in April I blogged about getting prepared in the post entitled Passata Preparation.

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So last weekend with 75 kilograms of ripe red tomatoes on my kitchen table the task of turning them into passata began. The process is as simple as anything can be, as all you need is tomatoes, heat and a pan. Unlike when I make sauce for eating straight away there’s no oil added to the pan for my stored passata, meaning I can use it for many different sauces throughout the year. So after washing I cut the tomatoes into quarters and add them to a saucepan and turn on the heat.

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They’ll steam for a few seconds and then release their liquid. Don’t worry if there’s a slight odour of them catching, just give them a stir and they’ll soon start to break down.

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As I don’t have a traditional passata maker: One of those huge round pans sat above a wood burner, or a modern external gas ring as many people use today I make mine in the kitchen. I use my three largest pans and on a 30 degree Italian summer day it’s like being inside a furnace as they bubble away. Remember to give them an occasional stir as they break down.

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If you only half-fill the saucepan the cooking process takes 25-30 minutes and you’re left with soft tomatoes in their own juice. I then pour them into a bowl and begin the procedure again. I rinse the saucepans between each batch but there’s no need to wash them thoroughly. I continue until I have around six large bowls full of cooked fruits, (this makes around 10 litres). Once they’ve cooled sufficiently it’s time to put them through the passapomodoro machine an it’s at this point that your kitchen can start to resemble a scene from a Shakespearean tragedy.

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As you ladle the cooked tomatoes into the machine and turn the handle they give a satisfying squelch as the sauce is pushed out and the skins, seeds and dry pulp is dropped out of the rear. Now my tip is to pass the discarded pulp through once more and you’ll be surprised how much more liquid will be squeezed from it. It’s always best throughout this process to cover the work surfaces as after an hour or so it can look like Titus Andronicus has run amok in your kitchen.

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I then bottle the passata and store it in the fridge and freeze it in blocks as explained in my April post mentioned above with the hyperlink. This year I made 51 litres of the sauce with the process taking two days of cooking and 5 days of freezing in batches of two person servings. So there’s now 153 blocks in the freezer, plenty for the forthcoming year to make pasta sauces, curries and soups with.

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It may seem a lot of work but the time it saves throughout a year is considerable and when you calculate that it costs as little as €0.15 a litre it’s well worth it. But for me the bonus is knowing that it’s all fresh with no additives and even on the coldest of winter days it’ll still be bursting with the flavours of an Italian summer.

Spicy Salami Ragù

Ragù is a meat based sauce for pasta which is not to be confused with a sugo which is a more fluid sauce. In the north of Italy ragù is usually made with minced or ground meat while in the south they use more substantial pieces of meat, maybe whole sausages. But regardless of what meat you use, it has to be said that home made ragù beats anything you can buy in the shops.

As regular readers know I’m not keen on shop bought sauces for pasta and prefer to make my own as I always think It’s much tastier and you do away with all of those preservatives and colourings. Today I made one of my favourite home creations and now I’ll share this pasta sauce that I’ve made many times with you.

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This sauce I call spicy salami ragù was originally, just some left-overs. It started out when I opened the fridge and saw half a spicy salami and a courgette looking back at me. I grabbed them and devised this recipe. The ingredients are:

4 inches / 10 cms of spicy salami (similar to Chorizo)

a small courgette

4 gloves of garlic

250g tin of chopped tomatoes (or passata from my worth the work post.

Handful of fresh basil leaves

Chop the salami and courgette in to cubes, slice the garlic and you’re ready to go. I won’t post photos of chopped salami and courgette as I’m sure you can all imagine what they look like. Heat a dry frying pan and add the salami and let it cook and release it’s spicy oil for about 3 minutes then put it aside. Add a drizzle of olive oil to the pan and fry the courgette for another 3 minutes, then add the garlic and cook for a few minutes but don’t let it brown. Add the salami back into the pan and chuck in a pinch of freshly ground black pepper.  Splosh into the pan the tomato sauce/tinned tomatoes and let it simmer for a few minutes before adding the basil. (there’s no need to chop the basil). Take it off the heat and let it cool for a few minutes before pouring the mixture into a blender and switching it on to make a thick sauce.

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Put the pasta of your choice on to cook as per manufacturers directions and reheat the ragù and serve the whole lot in a bowl, cover with a liberal dousing of grated Parmesan and sit down and eat.

The sauce lasts for a week in the refrigerator or can be frozen for use at a later date, but to be honest it’s so quick and easy to make you’re better of having it fresh.

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This is a great way of getting some veggies into children that are stubborn eaters, instead of using a spicy salami, substitute it for 2 pre-cooked sausages.

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.

3.

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).

4.

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).

6.

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

7.

* 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.