It’s all about food

Coming from Stoke on Trent in the UK I’ve discovered something that people from my town of birth have in common with the Italian people.

What can this be?

It’s food.

In Stoke people are always talking about food, you’ll often be asked what you had for breakfast, and even straight after dinner (we Stokies call lunch, dinner) you’ll be asked what you’re going to be having for your tea, (we Stokies call dinner, tea).

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The Italian people are passionate about food, mention that you’re going to the coast for a fish lunch and they’ll ask where will you be eating? What will you be having?  Talk about dinner the night before and they’ll ask how you prepared it and they are happy if you give them a step by step account of your cooking methods and ingredients.

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In Stoke the local delicacy is the oatcake, a soft savoury pancake made from oatmeal that’s served with breakfast ingredients like bacon, eggs, sausages etc. and local people are devoted to them.

In Abruzzo the local delicacy is arrosticini. Mutton skewers, more often than not, cooked out in the open and devoured with gusto with bread simply drizzled with olive oil and the local population love them.

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As summer brings in the warmer weather the one thing people from Italy and the UK have in common is eating outside. Italian’s like nothing better than meat cooked ‘sul braciere’ on the brazier, meaning over charcoal in the same way the Brits love their lamb chops and burgers cooked al fresco on the BBQ.

Maybe we’re not that different after all.

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Flavoursome Fuel

Cucina povera is an Italian phrase meaning the cuisine of the poor, or peasant cooking; the literal translation is, poor kitchen. The reason I mention this is because a few nights ago I was watching TV and I heard a chef say, food is fuel. I thought this was an odd thing for a professional to say, as most chefs want us to believe they are creating gastronomic masterpieces rather than just filling us up with the culinary equivalent to diesel.

The concept of cucina povera is becoming trendy with many chefs now serving up platters of rustic food. However ask any aged Italian about it and they’ll shrug at the concept, saying it’s a romantic notion to give the humble cooking they grew up with out of necessity a fancy name.

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You could say that peasant food could be classed as fuel, as traditionally it was served up solely to stave off hunger and to nourish the peasant farmers. The concept is to create meals from what you have, be it from the garden or the store cupboard. One of the staples of poor food is polenta and if made well it can be as comforting as a bowl of creamy mashed potato. So last night I grabbed a few items from the store cupboard and made a simple but satisfying supper.

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Polenta is cheap but commercially produced brands can be gritty, so I prefer to use a local brand that’s extra fine and results in a soft texture. I rehydrated some porcini mushrooms, made a tomato and sausage sauce and after cooking the polenta in home made chicken stock, I served it up and sat in front to the log burner enjoying a satisfying supper.

Luscious Lunch

My Gorgonzola and Mushroom Soup.

When the weather refuses to warm up and there’s more dampness around than that from a slavering dog at a banquet, what better way is there to face the day than, light the log burner, close the doors and make something warm and nourishing for lunch. Today while the valley was obscured by fog and the ground underfoot resembled a sponge I decided to make my Gorgonzola and mushroom soup for lunch, and thought I’d share the recipe with you all.

Many people seem wary of making mushroom soup for fear of it becoming a slimy tasteless mess. But there’s no need to be with this recipe, it’s so easy a complete kitchen novice could make it. The ingredients are:

35 g Unsalted butter. 250 g mushrooms. 50 g Gorgonzola. 400 ml stock. 1 medium white onion.     2 garlic cloves. 1tsp salt. 2tbs paprika. 3tbs flour. Sprig of fresh thyme. A splash of both lemon juice and whole milk.

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Chop the onion; not too fine this is a rustic hearty soup. Peel and chop the garlic and then set aside. Melt the butter over a medium heat and sweat off the onions for 5 minutes, adding the salt to them (this helps them to release their moisture and prevents early browning). after 5 minutes add the garlic and continue to sweat for a further 2 minutes before adding the mushrooms. Stir the mixture into the butter and then add the paprika. The mix may seem dry at this point but don’t worry, as after the mushrooms take on the colour of the paprika add a good splash of lemon juice. (Shop bought from a plastic lemon is fine for this recipe.)

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Stir for a minute or two then add a sprig of fresh thyme and the stock. (Vegetable stock is good, but I tend to use homemade chicken stock as I always have some in the freezer made up from the carcass of a roasted bird.) Simmer for 5 or 6 minutes and then add a splash of whole or semi-skimmed milk*.

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* For a splash I added around 3tbs of milk. You can use cream but there’s no need to as the cheese will make the soup creamy.

Crumble in the Gorgonzola and remove from the heat for a few minutes and let it slowly melt into the soup, when you’re ready to serve place back on the heat and stir for a couple of minutes and serve instantly in warmed bowls. Today I served it with small panini all’olio and prosciutto. (Soft bread rolls with ham).

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And we followed it with home made hazelnut and almond salted butterscotch tart and ice cream. Delicious.

Boun appetito a tutti…

Fusion. Not Confusion.

Another food post I’m afraid.

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

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

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

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

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

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Summer Season

Twelve weeks have slipped by since I last added to this blog and I apologise for neglecting it. I’d like to say it’s because I’ve been too busy with work, however that’d only be a half truth as I’ve also been busy eating out and enjoying the summer.

It’s eating out during the tourist season that I’m writing about today. Out of season the restaurants are very happy for the local population to patronise their establishments and are often more attentive. However as soon as the tourists arrive the attitude as well as the food changes.

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I was having a conversation with a friend about this a month or so back after we had visited a restaurant we’d visited many times before and had a terrible experience. The season was winding down and when we entered the almost empty dining room we noticed that parts of the bar were already being packed away, meaning the small eatery will probably close over the autumn and winter months. Fair enough, if there’s not the custom to make it worthwhile opening then it makes sense, but surely if they remain open to diners they can pack up later. The waitress (eventually) strolled over to take our order and everything we asked for off their menu was no longer available. Sorry no pizza, sorry no fries, sorry no vongole, sorry no white wine, sorry red wine either only rosé. We all decided that as there was nothing available that we wanted we’d leave. The final insult after many weeks of eating there was to hear the waitress moan to the owner about us being miserable English tourists. Suffice to say, despite your usually friendly staff and great food, we’ll not be back again.

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One thing we as stranieri, ex-pats, immigrants, or however we label ourselves have noticed is that when the area is full of tourists the food quality in some not all establishments drops from excellent to average and portion sizes shrink faster than a slimmer at Weightwatchers. Service becomes rushed and the waiters that out of season are pleased to see you become less attentive; I put that down to increased trade, but regular patrons and locals do seem to get a rum deal when the tourists are in town.

I’m sure this isn’t indicative of just our area, I’m sure it must go on all over the world where bars and restaurants cater to tourists – it’s just a shame that it can make you reconsider where you’ll be spending your euro the following summer.

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.

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.

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.

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