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.

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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.

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.

Worth the Work

A few years back, a friend called to see me and I was in the kitchen pushing cooked tomatoes through a fine sieve to make pasta sauce for the evening’s dinner. She commented that it seemed, “A bit of a faff.”* when you can just open a jar of shop bought sauce. “But, will processed sauce from a jar taste this good?” I replied. She shrugged her shoulders and said “Yeah, probably.” Twenty five minutes later as she was devouring the sauce, she was in effect, eating her words.

I remembered this the other day as I noticed we had some tomatoes that were going over** so I made some for a weekday lunch. It’s an easy recipe and makes use of tomatoes that you’d normally throw out. On this occasion I had 4 medium sized tomatoes and 8 small cherry ones, I chopped them up and added them to a pan with a drizzle of olive oil and just let them cook down, occasionally stirring them. After about 10 minutes you can add a quarter of a glass of red wine if you like, but that’s an optional addition. A further 10 minutes later they’ll be soft; don’t be alarmed by any black or burned skins. Let them cool down and once they are cold push the pulp through a fine sieve using the back of a spoon. (If you use a metal sieve use a plastic or wooden spoon as metal on metal can taint the taste).

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This amount of tomatoes won’t make a large amount of sauce but will give you enough for 2 servings of pasta and sauce.

Excluding cooling down time, it’s so far taken around 30 minutes to prepare and sieve. Compare this to the time it takes to drive to the supermarket, park the car and walk around the shelves before standing in a queue to pay.

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The principle of Italian cooking is about fresh produce, home cooking and as little waste as possible and I’ve always been attracted to this ethos so I’ve always made my own pasta sauce rather than buy it in jars.

This recipe was given to me so long ago I have forgotten which of my Italian friends passed it on to me, but with their thanks I’ve now passed it onto you.

So having made a portion of the sauce a day or so ago I retrieved it from the fridge and here’s what I did with it today.

DSCF8504 I picked 5 large basil leaves from my herb table outside the kitchen door and chopped 3 garlic cloves. These were added to 3 small sausages from my local butcher that have been chopped up into small pieces. Add a little olive oil to a pan and fry the sausage until it starts to brown, then add the garlic and 3 minutes later add the sauce.

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Let it simmer for a couple of minutes then add the shredded basil leaves as your pasta cooks in lots of boiling salted water. Once the pasta is cooked combine this with your sauce and serve straight away with a liberal sprinkling of grated Grana Padano cheese and a hunk of good Italian bread: This quick lunch all about good food not a fear of carbohydrates.

There’s many flavour combinations that you can create, this sauce goes well with tuna and chillies or pancetta and ricotta, or simply as a intense tomato sauce on spaghetti.

Sadly it looked so good I ate it before I remembered to take a photo of the finished dish, but isn’t that what food’s all about, a little effort for a huge return in flavour and pleasure. Give this a try and I know you’ll never buy supermarket sauces that are laden with salt and sugar again. The bonus is, it will keep for a week in the fridge and can be frozen.

* To spend time in ineffectual activity or wasting time doing something not necessary.

** Too ripe and going soft