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.

Quick and Easy Ribs

Last week I posted a photo on Facebook of some stick ribs I’d made for dinner. A friend back in the UK said to me that he loved ribs but couldn’t be bothered with all the effort to make them, I said there’s not much effort in ribs really. He talked about hours of marinating and then a long slow cooking time, not to mention the problem of cleaning the burnt bits off the baking tray. I laughed and told him my ribs take about 35-40 minutes from start to finish. He suggested I write about it here and share the recipe for him to try.

So this is my version of sticky ribs and the ingredients used, however as I make it by eye there’s no exact measurements.

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First thing I do is put the ribs into a saucepan of water with 3 or 4 star anise and bring to the boil, then simmer for 20 to 25 minutes while the sauce is made. The sauce is as follows: 1 teaspoon of English mustard, a good slosh of tomato ketchup, a few dashes of balsamic vinegar, a squirt of lemon, a hearty drizzle of honey. To this add black pepper, a teaspoon of ground cumin, a glug of chilli oil, (I use my own Olio Santo) if you don’t have chilli oil then dried chilli will do. I then add some ground star anise and a splash of red wine. Mix all of this together to make a loose paste.

Remove the ribs from the pan and dry them on kitchen paper then line a baking tray with baking parchment; you’ll see why later.

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Place the tray on a top shelf in a pre-heated oven, 200 degrees (180 for fan-assisted) and bake them for 15 minutes. Once the ribs are cooked remove from the oven and remove from the baking parchment. You’ll see that they come away easily and retain most of the sauce that usually sticks to the metal tray.

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Dispose of the parchment and you have a tray that needs just a quick wash: no scrubbing away welded on sauce. The only thing left to do is enjoy eating the ribs which are great with a cold beer.

An Italian Day

A friend once mentioned to me that her neighbour went to the market or local shop everyday to buy provisions for that day’s lunch or dinner. She told me that if she did a weekly shop then she’d save herself a daily trip to the shops. I thought about this and spoke with an Italian friend about it and her reply was, “Of course we shop everyday, that way we know we have, cibo più fresco.” PING! on went the ‘of course’ light. In a society where seasonal is important, women have shopped daily for years to make certain they purchase the best and freshest produce.

Often people comment that Italian’s appear to be chaotic and disorganised, but that’s far from the truth. Italian’s are very organised in their day to day lives and as I think back to how my day has been today I realise I’ve adapted to some of these daily rituals easily and without actually thinking about it. So here’s a typical Britalian day for me and how it mirrors that of my Italian colleagues and friends.

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My day starts with strong black coffee and after breakfast I set off for work. Today I drive up into the mountains as I’m visiting the town of Torricella Peligna to take photos of an apartment that is being put up for sale. I have a pleasant morning with the owner and get the shots required to market her apartment. The sky is as clear and blue as a Ceylon sapphire as we leave the town and below us the road twists and turns through the countryside, with its patchwork of fields and olive groves. The car’s windows are open and the scent of jasmine is drawn inside making this journey a feast for the senses. We pass through the town of Roccascalegna and decide to drop in to check all is well with some new clients who purchased a house a few months back. I find that Sue, Keith and their beautiful daughter Sophie are settling in to their house well and are becoming happily embroiled into their Italian community.

It’s now one o’clock and time for that important of daily Italian customs, lunch.

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We drop into our local restaurant which is already filled with diners and after a ten minute wait we’re seated and ordering. Italian lunch is the most important meal of the day, it’s not to be rushed, it’s meant to be eaten in a relaxed manner to aid digestion. In complete contrast to the meagre Italian breakfast lunch is substantial. I order my primo;  chitarrina allo scoglio, a pasta dish made with the local Abruzzese square shaped spaghetti. The mussels and clams are sweet and the broth that lurks under the pasta has the fragrance of the sea. Around us the other diners are eating, drinking and chatting at a leisurely pace. Lunch isn’t something that should be rushed in Italy. More white wine: ice cold and fizzing in the carafe is delivered to our table and our dishes are cleared away in readiness for the secondo.

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Being an Italian restaurant there’s a television mounted on the wall and muted news reports are playing as the waiters clear tables and redress them in around 40 seconds for more waiting diners. My secondo arrives, a plump piece of salmon dressed simply with olive oil and a slice of lemon. My contorno (side dish) is slices of fresh tomato and wafer thin rings of red onion.

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Workers look at their watches in a relaxed manner, no one is rushing to get back to work yet; after all the standard time given over for lunch is two hours. I check the time and order coffee and stretch my arms above my head feeling happily full.

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After my two hour repast and having paid my €10  we leave and I go back to work. My afternoon is taken up with admin until it’s time to pack away the office for a few minutes and head off to the cantina. A short drive later, I’m loading boxes of wine into the boot of the car and I’m almost ready to leave when the assistant calls me over and gives me two free bottles of wine and tells me to have a good evening.

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Generosity seems to be an intrinsic part of the Italian psyche as is their cordiality, it’s customary to be told to have a good day, a pleasant evening, buon pranzo (have a good lunch) and all other manner of well wishes throughout your day. These salutations are never forced and they’re always received and reciprocated in a genuine way. I’m happy to say that there’s none of that dictated corporate bonhomie in Italy.

Back home, it’s time to sample the wine and a glass of excellent red is poured as I check the last of the emails for the day before setting off for the evening stroll in readiness for dinner. Passeggiata, the Italian custom of a stroll before dinner is a perfect way to catch up with gossip, and as soon as you get into the habit you realise it’s a perfect way to integrate with your community, it’s a sort of walking adhesive.

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It’s now around 8pm and the cars have started to arrive at the local restaurant, the tables outside are populated by people drinking aperitivi as the waiters finish setting up for the evening service. And all over Italy people are preparing for dinner, the same way it’s been done throughout generations.