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

Butternut and Walnut Ravioli

I’ve only once before attempted to make pasta and it tasted so diabolical that the expensive pasta machine languished in a cupboard for years before being consigned to the bin. So after trying a friend’s home made pasta this week I thought I’d give it another go. But of course not a simple spaghetti for me, no I want to make a ravioli. So I looked through the freezer and found some roasted butternut squash from last autumn’s harvest and in the kitchen cupboard was some walnuts. So I set out making my pasta, which is basically 1 medium sized egg to 100g of 00 flour. I mixed and kneaded the pasta for a few minutes until it formed a nice ball and wrapped in cling film it was popped it into the fridge to rest.

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Next I chopped the walnuts and added them to the butternut which was warming in a saucepan, to this I added some nutmeg and stirred it all together making a bright ball of orange filling. This was put aside to cool.

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I retrieved the chilled pasta from the fridge and set about rolling it out thinly, which is no mean feat on a hot Italian afternoon.

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I cut my pasta into strips and then using a new ravioli cutter I started to assemble the promised pouches of pleasure, however the ravioli cutter broke on the first use and I had to start again with a roller cutter.

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Once I’d made my first ever batch of ravioli, they were popped into the fridge to relax a while and I set a pan of water on to boil and washed fresh sage from the garden.

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With water on a rolling boil they were dropped in with affection as sage butter bubbled on the hob. minutes later they we scooped out and plated up.

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This may not be the most uniform plate of ravioli, or the prettiest, but served with a few shavings of provolone piccante they were devoured with gusto. I don’t think I’m a culinary threat to the local community, but I’m proud I gave making pasta another go.

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.

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.

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.

Given the Cold Shoulder

This week I received two wonderful gifts, both of them being meat. It’s hunting season here in Abruzzo and as I said in an article I wrote for Italy magazine back in 2014, here in Italy hunting is seen more as a way of life than a pastime. You can read the article here. The cacciatori (hunters) that gather together dressed in their hi-vis waistcoats are hunting solely for food not sport and mostly their intended quarry is cinghiale (wild boar). Most of the year the boar are hidden away but this time of the year the boar move closer to towns as their food supplies start to dwindle. They can be a nuisance as not only are they dangerous they have a liking for anything sweet and two-years ago a large male decided to feast upon the pomegranates in our garden. Needless to say we let him take his fill.

The sound of shots ricochet on the morning air as the sound of excited dogs yelp in search of this highly prized meat: so highly prized few hunter’s will share their quarry. That’s why this week I was so pleased with my gifts. My friend Massimo gave me 2 kilos of diced boar and another friend Nino told me he’d left some down at the local bar for me. My surprise when I went to collect what I expected to be another couple of kilo’s of meat was evident when I was handed a whole frozen shoulder and shank.

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So what to do with it?

I Googled lots of recipes and took away some ideas and decided to roast it for a lunch with friends at the weekend. So after it had defrosted the only container large enough to accommodate the meat was our laundry basket, once inside I made a marinade which consisted of rosemary, sage, cloves and  black peppercorns, some star anise, garlic, honey and English mustard powder. Then I added 1 litre of white wine and 3 litres of red wine and left it to infuse with the flavours for 24 hours.

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The next step was to remove the meat and pat it dry before adding it to a roasting tin and placing an orange, some garlic and rosemary in with it before sealing with aluminium foil. I’d read that it’s best to start it off for 30 minutes at around 200 degrees then reduce to 180 and give it 40 minutes per kilo and for shoulder an extra 40. So the beast went into the oven.

It roasted slowly and when it was finally served with roast potatoes and veg everyone gave appreciative nods and smiles as they tucked into it. There’s was so much that what was left was divided up ready to be turned into a tasty roast boar ragú.

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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.

Fusion Hot Pepper Sauce

Each year I grow hot Italian chillies and as I harvest them I sun-dry them in batches for use throughout the year. Once dried they store in an airtight jar for a year or so. Just make sure when you pick some out that your fingers are dry, a tiny drop of water in the jar will spoil them. As my chillies in the orto are almost ready to harvest I decide to use up some of last years to make way for the new crop.

I’ve also been growing some Jamaican Scotch Bonnets, the plant is in its second year and after a not so good season last year, I took advice and potted it up to restrict the roots and it’s bearing lots of bright orange fruits this year. So using these two varieties I thought I’d create a Caribbean-Italian fusion hot pepper sauce.

The ingredients I used are:

8 sundried cayenne chillies, 5 fresh Scotch bonnets, 5 garlic cloves, 230 ml white vinegar, 2 teaspoons malt vinegar, 1 tsp salt, 1 tsp sugar,  2 tsp red wine and a tsp of tomato puree.

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First boil a kettle and soak the dried chillies to rehydrate them. While they’re soaking trim the stalks off the Scotch bonnets and peel the garlic.

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Once the chillies are rehydrated take their stalks off and add everything into a blender and blitz until smooth. NB: The tomato puree is used purely to add colour to the sauce as the orange Scotch Bonnets have very little colour.

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Transfer to a pan and simmer the liquid until reduced by a third. OPEN A WINDOW and don’t stand over the steam and breathe it in as it’ll cause you to cough and can irritate the eyes.

Remove from the heat and using a jam funnel decant it hot into a sterilised jar and seal.

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The consistency of this sauce should be loose, very similar to Tabasco rather than a gloopy sauce. If you don’t want seeds in the sauce then it’s okay to sieve it. Like similar sauces the salt and the vinegar are excellent preserving agents so should keep in a dark cupboard for around 3 months and in a refrigerator for 6 months.

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So how was the taste test? It was hot but the sugar took away the harshness. I think it’s ideal for adding into stews, soups and sauces and good for drizzling over pasta dishes. I may even try a little on a pizza turning Margherita in la Diavoletta.