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.

Zuppa di Zucchine e Parmigiano

OH NO!!! Not another courgette recipe.

I was in the orto this morning and the harvest included some ripe tomatoes, several cucumbers and another load of courgettes. So after sending friends messages on Facebook asking them to collect a cucumber and courgette when passing to save them going to waste, I decided to make something else for the freezer for the winter months.

I had given an Italian friend of mine my recipe for courgette and mint soup and she told me she often makes zuppa di zucchine e parmigiano. (courgette and parmesan soup). So I recalled the ingredients she told me she used and thought I’d have a bash at it.

The ingredients are:

1 kg courgette, 1 small onion, bunch of fresh basil, 2 litres of water, 200 ml cooking cream, 50g grated parmesan, 200 ml chicken stock, salt and pepper to season.

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Add the chicken stock to the water; I use it straight from the freezer. Vegetable stock can be used if you are a vegetarian/vegan, and bring it to the boil, Meanwhile, chop the courgette and fry it with the onion and basil until it starts to soften but not brown, then add to the pot of water and simmer until the pieces of courgette are soft.

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Once the courgette is soft remove from the heat and let it cool down. Once cool blend until the soup is smooth and transfer back into the pot.

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Add the cream and parmesan and stir as you reheat it slowly. Pour into bowls and eat straight away and enjoy. I expected it to be a much more robust flavour but it’s actually a very light soup, ideal for summer lunches.

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As this is the first time I’ve made this soup I’m guessing it’ll keep for a week in the refrigerator and if frozen last for 2-3 months.

My Courgette and Mint Soup

Last week I posted a link to a recipe for courgette and mint soup on my recipe for zucchine sott’aceto and a couple of people have got back to me saying they’ve made this soup but always found it bland and what was my recipe if it’s tasty. So here it is:

The difference in my soup is I use home made chicken stock rather than vegetable stock and add a couple of other additions to the pot, so here’s the ingredients:

1.5 litres of water

200 ml chicken stock

3 medium sized courgettes

large bunch of mint (I use a mix of spearmint and garden mint)

small bunch of lemon thyme

2 garlic cloves

1 onion (and a pinch of black pepper)

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Add your chicken stock to the water* and put it on the heat, then chop the onion and two courgettes and in a pan with a little olive oil fry them until just golden, the aim is to get a roasted flavour but with little colouring.

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Roughly chop the third courgette and with a liberal sprinkle of black pepper add to the water and bring it to the boil.

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When the water comes to a boil, add the pan-fried courgette and onion and in the hot pan add the garlic cloves and keep them on the heat until they start to lightly brown then add to the soup. Turn the heat down to a simmer and after washing the mint and thyme add the leaves to the liquid and let it simmer for 25 minutes.

After 25 minutes turn off the heat and let it cool down completely. Once cold the fat from the chicken and the olive oil will be resting upon the surface of the soup. Remove this by lightly laying a piece of kitchen towel onto it and it will soak up the residue. Do this 2 or 3 times until the surface of the soup is clear. Add in batches to a blender and liquidise and it’s then ready for either freezing (the soup stores well for several months) or storing in the refrigerator for a week, or you can simply reheat and enjoy with crusty bread.

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* I add my home made chicken stock straight from frozen into the water at the start of the process. I make it by simmering a roast chicken carcass (often after a roast dinner) in a litre of water for about 40 minutes. After skimming the fat off the top it store it in 200 ml containers in the freezer.

This is a great healthy soup that can be eaten chilled or hot and is low in calories for people watching their weight. Courgettes are high in vitamin A and mint is great for maintaining a healthy gut. So this is a tasty soup and good for you too. Try it and let me know what you think.

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.

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.

Kitchen Sink Drama

I’m a firm believer that when you move house rather than change everything at once, it can often benefit you to live in the space for a while and see what works and what doesn’t work for you. When we purchased our house in Abruzzo, it came with several unique things. A lavatory in the living room opposite an old television set – handy if you don’t want to miss an episode of your favourite show. A bathroom downstairs that had everything apart from a lavatory. A desiccated grasshopper in the shutters and an old outside sink.

A lot of Italian houses have these ugly concrete sinks complete with washboard under an outside tap. Now part of me would like to think that this was the family sink for washing dishes, cleaning clothes and possibly baby bathing. But maybe that’s too romantic a notion. Maybe the outside tap was the family’s only water source many years ago, but back then I guess it would be buckets that were filled and later, possibly 1950’s, the invention of the ghastly concrete sink was the mod-con every rustic cottage wanted.

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They really are rather unattractive objects and our first thought was to remove it and once smashed to smithereens it would become part of the hard core in the new downstairs floors.

However we never did get around to doing this as our sole water supply at the start of the restoration was the outside tap and it made sense to retain the sink until it became obsolete.

Unlike my neighbour (see photo) ours didn’t have the horrible tiles and lumpy feet so aesthetically it was more pleasing on the eye. (But not much).

Over the coming months people commented on how the sink remained and how they’d removed theirs. We nodded and did mention that we’d be doing the same once we had a fully functioning kitchen sink.

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However over the coming months the sink proved itself; you could say it became worth its weight in concrete. I even grew to like the thing, especially its chipped edge and its two balletic legs, displayed at an angle.

It is possibly one of the most useful things we have inherited with the house, it’s great for washing vegetables from the orto saving splashing the kitchen tiles with mud. On passata making days, it’s great for washing large tomato stained saucepans and the washboard is good on sunny days for drying the pots and pans.

It’s also good for using as a cold frame for hardening off tender plants. In fact ours did spend one year as a planter, it looked very nice with geraniums and summer bedding flowing over the edges: But pretty gave way to functionality and after the summer was over it was consigned once again to proper usage.

But how things change – we often have people say to us that they wish they’d kept their old sink as they now find they have need for it, and I know of one person who after smashing up one has since paid to have another one installed.

It just goes to show, that you’re better off living with things before making snap decisions. My outdoor sink is still ugly but I wouldn’t be without it.

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Bread and Wood Burning

It would be fair to say that today my senses have had an olfactory workout. First the kitchen is enveloped in the delicious smell of fresh baked bread, my olive and pepper loaf sits on a cooling rack as, Never Can Sat Goodbye  by Gloria Gaynor plays on the iPod.  I transferred the song from my sister’s original 7” vinyl single onto my hard-drive and formatted it for my Apple device many years ago. To be honest I always preferred the b-side of this classic, We Just Can’t Make It.

Compared to commercially made bread, I love homemade. There’s sense of satisfaction when you throw together a handful of ingredients and out comes something so delicious. I say, throw, as when I’ve finished making bread the kitchen is a mess and looks like a mad baker has had a fit during the kneading process. I’ve had no training in the kitchen, but my paternal grandfather was a baker, so maybe there’s a bit of flour in my genes. This past two-weeks I’ve produced a rosemary focaccia, a fennel and garlic ciabatta and a couple of crusty white loaves, so am feeling like I’m becoming a little more like a traditional Italian peasant farmer. I was chatting to my friend in the local independent supermarket a few days ago and commented that they don’t sell bread. “We sell flour and yeast, why should we sell bread?” was her reply. “Every Italian mother knows how to make bread, why waste money buying a loaf when it only costs cents to make it at home?” I agree with her, as for the cost of one loaf you can buy the ingredients to make three or four.

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Later in the evening we decide it’s time we tested the wood burner. We purchased it two-years ago from a friend in Cellino Attanasio, and the cast iron burner took us nearly three hours to transport back as it weighed down my old Berlingo as we criss-crossed mountain tracks. The fire was laid and tentatively the paper was lit, I opened the windows expecting the room to be filled with smoke, but none came, it travelled up the chimney, as it was intended to do. The windows are closed and our living room is bathed in a red glow, twenty-minutes later the windows are opened again to let in some cool air, the room is stifling. Not having a handbook or instructions and being wood-burner virgins, we fiddle with vents and dampers and soon the heat is brought under control and a log glows seductively behind the glass-windowed door. Or fiddling has let the aroma of burning wood float into the air and it assaults the senses.

There are some smells that give pleasure more than others, and everyone has their favourites, be it freshly ground coffee or tarmac. It might be vanilla or even wet dog. But for me it has to be fresh bread or wood smoke, so today’s olfactory perception has been pleasurable on two counts. I just love days like this.

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Another Green Theme

With autumn dressing the trees in various shades of brown and gold, I removed the tired tomato plants from the side of the house that has been our makeshift orto. From the four plants, we have had a a good crop and had to purchase no tomatoes until a week or so ago. There was still a glut of green un-ripened fruits hanging from the trusses, so I picked them and left them in a bowl on the kitchen counter until I decided what to do with them. A few evenings ago we were given a bag of fruit from our friends up at the Olive House, as they have an abundance of apples in their orchard. So yesterday I decided to make some green tomato chutney.

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I’ve never made chutney before. I do make homemade sweet chilli sauce and I did once make jam in school. So chutney being mid-way between chilli sauce and jam, shouldn’t be too hard a task. I started by peeling the strongest onions this side of the fires in Hell, and like a teen who’s favourite boy-band had just announced their slit, I chopped them as tears poured from my eyes. I measured out the apple vinegar and weighed the tomatoes and apples. I grabbed a few spices and an opened bag of sultanas from the kitchen cupboard, chopped a couple of chillies and I was ready to make chutney.

As the iPod played the Tobi Legend, Northern Soul classic, Time Will Pass You By, I rubbed my eyes and forgetting that I’d chopped chillies, I instantly went blind. Idiot. With cold water splashed onto my face my vision began to restore itself as the music shuffled and the Pointer Sisters sang, Slow Hand. I chopped the two and a half kilo’s of green tomatoes and the kilo of tiny Italian apples and decided on the spot that if I had to change careers, I’d never choose commis chef. Once all the ingredients were assembled it was a case of fill the largest saucepan I owned and put a light under it. As soon as it came to the boil I turned down and just let it bubble away for a couple of hours.

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Towards the end of the cooking process, three-hours in I turned up the heat to allow it to thicken and reduce the remaining liquid. I set about washing jars in boiling water and popped them into the oven to dry. As soon as the jars had been sterilised in the oven we filled them which was no mean feat, hot jars and hot chutney pose their own handling problems. But with two large jars and a standard sized one filled, I had a self-satisfied smile as the iPod shuffled and my jars of chutney were serenaded by Sinead O’Connor singing Troy (Live in London).

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I barbecued some thick steaks tonight and had them with the chutney, it tasted amazing. Maybe I’ll look into this making chutney malarkey in more detail

No Bits in the Box

The restoration of the house is coming on in leaps and bounds, or so it seems. We have a kitchen floor and been tiled in the sink area. So it’s time to get those kitchen units assembled and put in place. An easy enough job for anyone with flat-pack experience. We purchased the kitchen four years ago back in the UK as it was on offer in a sale. It’s languished in Italy ever since awaiting assembly. It was even overlooked by the burglars when we were broken into in mid 2012.

The base units are quickly assembled by the crack team of kitchen fitters in my employ; or as I call them Betty and Dorothy and then it’s on to the wall units. All is going to plan until we come to the final wall unit, everything is unpacked and methodically checked against the instruction sheet and we discover there’s no fixings in this pack. Now I expect to find there’s an odd screw missing from a flat-pack piece of furniture, but to have all the fixings missing is a problem.

“We can sort out most of it,” I’m told. “We’ll just have to find somewhere that sells the door hinges and the wall hanging parts.” A quick message to a trusty builder friend in Cheshire and a photo of what we are missing, and I’m told the parts will be posted out. in due course.

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Apologies for this being a dull post.

Cucina Rustica

We are finally getting to the end of our house restoration, I can hardly believe that only five months ago our place was literally just a shell. There’s still a lot of small jobs to get finished, like the window fitted where the second front door used to be and the kitchen. Of all the rooms in the house the kitchen has undergone the greatest transformation, the room above has been taken away, the roof has been replaced and it now has a new floor. During these changes our cooking facilities have changed many times. When we first moved in everything was on boxes, with all the electrics being endless extension cables.

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Then as the roof and room above came down, the kitchen was installed in the corner of the living room with the fridge freezer standing beside the fireplace. Now the floor is in, we’ve reinstalled our rustic kitchen. No more microwaves balanced on boxes, or electric rings on top of old floorboards. It’s still a work in progress, but it means we can have a few days with space in the living room before we move it all out again to finish it off.

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Learning to live without a working kitchen has been trying at times, especially when it comes to cooking. I coped with washing dishes in the outside sink, but wanting to bake bread when you have no oven came test your patience. At some point this week we’ll plaster where the electrics have been installed and hopefully next week the laminate flooring will have been laid and we can begin assembling the cupboards and get the new cooker delivered from Casoli.

Once finished, will I yearn for my cucina rustica again?

I doubt it.