The Classic Pasta and Fagioli

There are so many versions of Pasta e Fagioli in Italy and on the web, it almost seems superfluous to add my two bob’s worth on the topic. Anyone who has an Italian nonna makes a more traditional/better/regional/authentic version. During winter, Pasta e Fagioli, (pasta and beans) is one of the most useful dishes to know. Is it an entrée, a soup or a main dish? It can be all of these but given the heartiness and distinct lack of brothy elements, I tend to make this dish as a piatto unico, a stand alone dish, to be served with bread, a few drops of new oil, and perhaps some Parmigiano. Most versions are thick with beans and pasta and very little broth: some are made slowly with fresh borlotti beans, while less desirable versions are thrown together with canned beans, canned tomato and cheap industrial pasta. It is a timeless classic rustic dish, Cucina Povera Italiana, made in the past through necessity using simple ingredients stored for winter. Today, it satisfies that need in us all for comfort food on a cold winter’s day.

Like many other Italian dishes, this one also starts with a classic soffritto, that holy trio of flavour, emerging from the slow sauté of carrots, onion and celery. The soffrito vegetables must be chopped very finely so that they almost disappear once they are cooked. Another element often added at the soffrito stage is pancetta and lardo. I omit these ingredients given my dietary preferences but try to find other umani elements to flavour the dish, either through rich stock, herbs, garlic or even anchovy fillets, reduced to a salty mash. I also reserve a little deep vegetable stock to thin the mixture.

First pressed and just delicious. The first harvest of Cobram’s new oil. Only for dressing up.

Ingredients

  • 200 g borlotti beans, either fresh or dried
  • 250 gr tomato passata or finely diced tomatoes
  • 80 gr onion finely chopped
  • 30 gr celery finely chopped
  • 30 gr carrot finely chopped
  • 1 garlic finely chopped
  • 1 small branch fresh rosemary
  • 3 Bay leaves
  • 10 g EV olive oil
  • black pepper
  • fine sea salt
  • 100- 200g of pasta ditalini, depending on your preference for a thick or thinner version.

Method

Cook the beans. If using dried borlotti, soak overnight then cook in water for around 80 minutes. Add the bay leaves to the water but no salt which may make the beans remain hard. If using fresh borlotti, there’s no need to soak them and they should cook in under 30 minutes, depending on their their freshness. Keep the cooking water.

When the beans are done, make a soffrito with the onion, celery and carrot. Add the oil to a large heavy based soup pot and gently saute these vegetables until soft and golden, adding the chopped garlic and finely chopped rosemary towards the end. (Traditionally, the garlic would be added to the cooking oil first, cooked until just golden then fished out before adding the soffrito ingredients. If you don’t love garlic as much as I do, consider that method. I like to keep the garlic for more flavour)

Add the beans and a little of the cooking water. Then add the tomato and heat through gently. Remove two ladles of the mixture and puree with a hand mixer. Return this back to the soup pot. If too thick, add a little bean cooking water or vegetable stock.

Add the pasta, and cook until al dente. Watch the pot at this stage as the pasta and beans have a tendency to stick when this thick. Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper.

Serve in lovely wide and shallow bowls with a drizzle of fine oil and some good bread.

Bread of the day with Pasta of the week.

Other Pasta of the Week ideas:

Maccheroni Rigati with Sweet Pepper Sauce

Ditalini with Cacio and Eggs

Gnocchi Sardi with Gorgonzola, Silver beet and walnuts.

Pantacce with Borlotti Beans and Rugola

 

 

 

 

 

Maccheroni Rigati with Sweet Pepper Sauce

Since beginning my little pasta series, Pasta della Settimana, readers have asked me all sorts of pasta questions. Is pasta fresca (fresh) better than pasta secca, (dried)? How do I choose a good dried pasta without paying a fortune? And the answer always comes down to the same thing: taste a variety of pasta brands and discover the difference between good and bad pasta. Commercial ‘fresh pasta’ sold in plastic packets in supermarkets is stodgy, far too thick and is inedible, despite the alluring sounding stuffings. It tastes just like the wrapping it comes in. If you want good fresh pasta, either make a batch yourself or find a reliable source of fresh pasta that is not too thick and floury. A good quality dried pasta beats a badly made industrial fresh one any day. Look for dried pasta that has a rougher surface and has been manufactured using bronze dies, or ‘Trafilatura al Bronzo’, meaning it has been extracted through bronze and not teflon dies, the latter more commonly used. A good pasta should hold its shape when cooked, the cooking water should not become overly cloudy and it should be firm and not floury to taste.

The other key thing about pasta is to choose a shape that marries your sauce. Short pasta with ridged lines (rigati) are good to hold creamy sauces. Look for this word on the packets (lisce means smooth, the opposite of rigati). Other golden rules include:

  • Never overcook pasta
  • Never over drain pasta, unless you are saucing with a thin brothy sauce or seafood. Pasta needs to be moist to marry well with the sauce.
  • Never over sauce pasta.
  • Use fresh, seasonal ingredients.
  • Find the best quality ingredients, including pasta, parmesan and EV olive oil that is fresh. When it comes to olive oil, check the use by date and choose one closest to the oil’s date of harvest and crush, which should be mentioned on the tin or bottle. In Victoria, Australia, Cobram oil is released in May each year so it’s easy to check the freshness annually. Many European oils often end up in famous delis with close to rancidity dates. Buyer beware.

    Tiny pasta shapes with fabulous names used especially in broths and thin soups.

In late Autumn, red peppers – bell peppers, pepperoni or capsicums- depending on where you come from, are at their peak and can be purchased in markets rather cheaply. They are far more suited to a sub- tropical climate: this is one vegetable that I prefer to buy than waste 5 months waiting for one two to ripen in my own orto.

Sweet and creamy, roasted pepperoni sauce with Maccheroni rigati ( Molisana brand)

The following recipe is a luscious creamy sauce which makes a great accompaniment to grilled fish as well as a pasta sauce. It keeps well, covered with a film of olive oil, for two weeks in the fridge.

Roasted Red Pepper sauce with Maccheroni Rigatiadapted from a recipe by Ursula Ferrigno, see below.)

This makes enough pasta sauce for 4 serves or a 225 g jar.

  • 4 large red peppers ( capsicum, bell pepper, pepperoni)
  • 65 g ground almonds or almond meal
  • zest of 1 lemon
  • 4 Tablespoons EV olive oil
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
  • 50 g freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano or Padano
  • sea salt, black pepper to taste
  • pasta to serve, around 80 -100g per person
  • fresh basil leaves to serve.
  1. Preheat oven to 200c. Place the peppers on a baking sheet and roast them in the oven for 25 minutes. turning once during cooking. They should become charred and deflated. Remove and place them in a plastic or paper bag to cool.
  2. When the peppers are cool, peel off the skin and remove all the seeds. Try to save the pepper juice by holding them over a bowl.
  3. Put the pepper flesh and all the other ingredients into a food processor and whizz until blended, smooth and thick. Taste and adjust seasoning.
  4. Cook your chosen pasta, such as rigatoni, penne rigate or maccheroni rigati. Reheat the sauce gently in a wide and and deep frying pan then add the cooked pasta to the sauce, tossing well to completely cover.
  5. Serve hot with torn basil leaves.

    Sides- a good bitter leaf salad and sourdough bread, Panmarino.

References.

Pasta Classica 125. Julia Della Croce, 1987

Pizza, Pasta and Polenta, Great Italian Vegetarian Recipes. Ursula Ferrigno, 1995

 

 

 

 

Pasta of the Week, Pantacce and Borlotti Beans with Rugola. I Can’t Believe it’s Vegan

Lots of Italian food is vegan by nature and vegan by tradition but you never see it labelled as such. And that, in my opinion, which is neither humble or otherwise, is a good thing. I can’t stand labels. Most of the food you will read about on my blog is vegetarian, but I rarely mention that word in the post. I firmly believe that once we do away with labels- vegetarian, vegan, plant-based, omnivore, ethically farmed (hallelujah) and heaven forbid, Paleo- the culinary world will be a better place. A good recipe tempts the taste buds with the summary of its parts and its visual tease.

Another version of Pasta e Fagioli

I’ve tasted very good vegan food in restaurants without that little colour- coded ‘v‘ in the corner to guide me, many a fine Italian antipasto and primo, as well as lovely traditional Indian, Greek and Middle Eastern dishes. Last Saturday I joined the throngs at the popular A1 bakery in Brunswick and ordered the Ful Mesdames platter. It  was comprised of a large bowl of semi mashed warm Ful,( dried fava beans recooked) dressed with a few chick peas, olive oil, parsley and sumac, sitting on a wooden board full of extras, gherkins, pink turnip pickles, warmed middle eastern bread cut into quarters, and a generous side salad of tomatoes, lettuce and onion. It was a surprising bargain for $8, a dish that would generously feed two people. No v word in sight. The stuff that parades as vegan around the cooler traps of Melbourne is either bland or highly processed and appeals to those whose taste buds are still transitioning from childhood to something else. The newly converted may need a label to spur them on. The best vegan food is never described as such. Look at the wonderful Italianesque recipes of Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers of The River Cafe fame, whose simple vegetable based recipes make me drool at the thought, sending me running to the kitchen garden. Again, no v word required. Good food is based on fresh seasonal ingredients, combined with a solid understanding of the role played by complementary herbs and spices, then presented in such a way in such a way to excite the diner.

This week’s Pasta Della Settimana ( pasta of the week) came about thanks to the current seasonal offerings from my garden- abundant rocket, fresh borlotti beans, tomatoes, garlic and chilli. It’s a solid meal for a cooler day. It’s another take on Pasta e Fagioli, that classic Italian dish that has moved up the ranks from Cucina Povera to bourgeois heaven. It can be deveganised by adding some finely grated parmigaino or any other animal based shavings you might fancy.

Pantacce pasta

Today’s pasta of the week calls for Pantacce, a mini bite sized lasagna pasta shape with a diagonal cut and a frilled edge along one side. These shapes are made by Molisana, another brand of pasta I sometimes use. It’s a versatile shape that goes well with most sauces. My garden inspired the rest. In this recipe, the beans are the main star, with a small handful of pasta per person to help unite the dish, providing a farinaceous element for the hungry.

Pasta, borlotti freschi e rugola.  Pasta with fresh borlotti beans and rocket.

Ingredients. Once again, this recipe is descriptive, not prescriptive.

  • Fresh borlotti beans, cooked slowly with a handful of herbs, a pinch or two of salt and a drizzle of oil. If you can’t access fresh borlotti, use dried beans and cook them slowly so they don’t split or go soggy.
  • Pantacce pasta, a lasagnette shape made by Molisana or any other medium-sized short pasta shape. I have used one large handful per person as I wanted the beans to star.
  • Some left over home-made tomato sugo, a few tablespoons per person. If you don;t have fresh tomatoes, use a good quality, thick tomato passata, cooked with a little garlic and oil.
  • finely chopped garlic to taste.
  • one finely chopped fresh chilli or a pinch or two of dried chilli flakes.
  • EV olive oil
  • fresh oregano, finely chopped.
  • fresh rugola ( rocket) torn.

Method

  1. Boil pasta in abundant salted water until al dente. Keep back some of the cooking water.
  2. Meanwhile, in a wide and deep pan, add some olive oil to the pan and heat it on medium. Add the garlic, chilli, and oregano. Stir about for one minute then add the tomato sugo or passata, a few tablespoons per person. Stir through the beans, season well, then add the cooked pasta. Use a tablespoon or two of the pasta cooking water to loosen the sauce. The dish needs to be well sauced. Bring the dish to high heat, stirring, then add the rocket and move it about until it wilts. Serve hot with a drizzle of good oil.

    Pasta e Fagioli, many ways to enliven a traditional dish.

Footnote. Sometimes I mention brand names in  my posts. I don’t receive any recompense for this, although if some came my way, I wouldn’t say no. Some Australian readers have been asking about brands of pasta to use and so I have decided to mention a few in these pasta posts. De Cecco is still my favourite.

 

Pasta of the Week. Ditalini Cacio e Ova

Most readers will be familiar with the restaurant term, Pasta del Giorno, pasta of the day, which in Italy, never strays too far from well-known classics. Pasta combinations vary from region to region or town to town but the seasoning, pasta shapes used and sauces will usually be particular to that area. Campanilismo is alive and well in Italy. I cook pasta at least once a week, hence the title of this post, Pasta della Settimana- pasta of the week. This may become a new weekly series, using fresh seasonal ingredients and a new world Italian approach, as well as documenting some traditional classics.

Pasta never gets boring so long as you change the pasta shapes, use fresh seasonal ingredients, as well as excellent extra virgin olive oil and Italian Parmigiano. The total cooking time is usually 12 minutes, including the preparation, which can take place as the pasta cooks. Mr Tranquillo, my kitchen hand, grates the Parmigiano and pours the wine, and if it’s a sunny day, sets the outside table.

Pasta cacio e ouva

This simple recipe comes from the Campania region. In some ways it resembles that classic Roman dish, Cacio e Pepe in that it includes Pecorino Romano but it’s one hundred times easier to make. It’s generally made with tubetti, which are short tubular shapes such as Ditalini, or Maccheroni shaped  pasta.

Ingredients for four serves

  • 1 clove garlic
  • 5 Tablespoons EV olive oil
  • some flat leafed parsley, cut finely
  • black pepper, freshly ground to taste ( I like lots)
  • sea salt
  • 4 eggs
  • 50 g pecorino, grated
  • 50 g Parmigiano Reggiano, grated
  • 400 g pasta tubetti, such as ditalini

Method

  1. Cook the pasta in lots of boiling salted water for the time suggested on the packet.
  2. Crack the eggs into a large bowl and lightly beat adding apinch of salt and pepper.
  3. Add the pecorino to the eggs, mix well, then add the parmesan. The mixture should be clear but quite thick.
  4. In a wide non stick pan, ( I tend to use a non stick wok for all my second stage pasta making these days) warm the olive oil and add the clove of garlic until it turns a pale gold, then remove it. Turn off the heat. Then add the drained cooked pasta shapes to the hot oil and saute for one minute.
  5. Add the pasta to the egg and cheese mixture, tossing about to mix well with a wooden spoon. Then add the finely chopped parsley.
  6. Serve in heated plates with a green salad and extra cheese if desired.
    Fuori o dentro? Questa e` la domanda!

    Campanilismo is a term derived from the word campanile, the bell tower and refers to an attachment to one’s birth place and the traditions that go with that town or village. In one sense, it can be described as parochialism. When talking about cuisine, this attachment can be both positive and negative. The positive aspects include the preservation of traditional dishes and foods of the region or the town: the negative side is that food choices and ingredients have become limited and limiting, reflecting the modern Italian’s tendency to look inwards and backwards. New foods and different ways of serving things are often viewed with suspicion, believing that the local version is the best and only way.

     

Not so Cool Cucumbers

Every time I wander through the vegetable garden, cucumbers virtually trip me up. They are self-sown, growing wild between other more ordered plantings, scrambling over paths and up reo metal structures. Not having the heart to pull them all out when they were petite little specimens with delicate yellow flowers, I am now paying for that weakness. These cucumbers make the zucchini look polite. On average, I pick 10 a day and although I try to nab them while they are dainty and seedless, many reach adulthood. At the beginning of summer, when they’re cool and welcome, I grate them into garlicky tzaziki or serve them in various brines and vinegars, just like my grandmother Maggie used to do. I’ve also pickled a few jars with dill and am now wondering what comes next. Last night the cucs got the hot Sichuan treatment with this spicy dish by Fuchsia Dunlop. The best part of this dish is smacking the cucumber with a rolling pin- very therapeutic. It’s a wonderful side dish served alongside other dishes as part of a Chinese banquet. I attempted to eat this dish on its own as a little Chinese entrée, chopsticks in one hand, chilled rosé in the other. The dish needs friends, both culinary and human.

Smacked cucumber in garlicky sauce (Su an ni pai huang gua)

  • 1-2 cucumbers ( 300 gr )
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tbsp garlic, finely chopped
  • 2 tsp caster sugar
  • 2 tsp Chinkiang vinegar ( black vinegar- no substitutes)
  • 1 tsp light soy sauce
  • 2 tbsp chilli oil – optional
  • A pinch or two of ground, roasted Sichuan pepper

Put the cucumber on a chopping board and smack it a few times with a rolling pin or the flat side of a cleaver, until some cracks appear on the surface. Then, holding your knife at an angle to the chopping board, slice the cucumber on the diagonal into small chunks.

In a bowl, mix the cucumber with the salt and leave to sit for 10 minutes to draw some of the water out of the cucumber. Stir together all the remaining ingredients in a small bowl. Drain the cucumber, then pour over the sauce and serve right away while still crunchy.

Do you have any memorable and unusual cucumber recipes? Leave a cucumber recipe comment below. Francesca xx

Pear Windfall and Italian Pear Cake

Most people these days would probably associate a ‘windfall’ with unexpected good fortune, a financial gain, perhaps a lottery win or an unforeseen inheritance. However, If you live with fruit trees in your back yard, a windfall is that day after a strong wind when fruit drops suddenly and the ground is strewn with ripe bounty.  In the case of windfall pears, the window of opportunity is short. They are usually very ripe and need to be used quickly.

Our earliest pear tree, Clapp’s Favourite, originated from a seedling that occurred by chance in Massachusetts in 1850. It is reliable cropper with bright yellow skin turning red on the sunny side of the tree, with juicy white flesh. It resembles a William pear but the fruit is much larger and is not a good keeper.

Clapps Favourite. Windfall pears.

With the recent windfall pears, I set to work before bruising set in. To freeze for winter, peel, core and dice the good usable flesh, then poach in a light sugar syrup- one part sugar to four parts water is the lowest sugar/water ratio you can use. Poach for a couple of minutes only then place the fruit in containers, covered with poaching liquid and leaving a few centimeters of head space before freezing. Not one to waste anything, I reheated the left over poaching liquid, added a pinch or so of Persian saffron then reduced the liquid to a thicker sauce. The resulting gold and pink syrup can live for a while in the fridge to use as a glaze or a simple drizzle over ice cream.

A classic Italian Pear Cake, Torta di Pere, is easy to make and keeps well in a covered container for three days. Lovely for breakfast or afternoon tea, it has a subtle pear and vanilla flavour, old-fashioned and comforting. I’m also considering the future of my remaining windfall Clapps pears-  perhaps a pear, almond and chocolate cake or a Pear and Ginger Clafoutis.

Torta di Pere. Italian Pear Cake

  • 3 eggs
  • 150 g caster sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 150 g SR flour, sifted
  • 30 g corn flour/corn starch
  • 1 pinch salt
  • 90 g butter, melted
  • 2-3 pears, peeled, cored and cut into small chunks

To Serve

Icing sugar to dust and whipped cream or marscapone lightened with cream and a drizzle of reserved saffron syrup.

Method

Pre-heat the oven 180°C. Cream the eggs and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla. Sift the flour, corn starch, salt together. Add to the egg batter and stir well, then add the melted butter and stir until the batter is smooth. Grease and line a 24 cm cake pan with baking paper and pour in the batter. Place the pear pieces on the cake, gently pushing down each piece into the batter leaving a little exposed. Bake for 35- 40 minutes, until the top is golden and the cake is set inside. Leave to cool before serving. When cool sprinkle icing sugar on cake. Serve with whipped cream on the side.

Done and dusted.
Pear tart in profile. Nice soft crumb, vanilla notes with subtle pear flavour.

Notes.

Recipe courtesy of Manger

If you are after some interesting fruit trees and live in Australia, Yalca has many unusual varieties. They are posted bare rooted in winter but you need to put in your orders well in advance. Our Yalca trees are thriving.

There’s a pear in there….

 

Pizza Cinque Tesori

Pizza night is a weekly event here and, depending on the mood of the creator and the time given to the task, some pizzas turn out better than others. I never fiddle with my dough recipe: as the old saying goes, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, but I have revised and simplified the method. Summer pizzas tend to be more reliable given the warm atmosphere, conducive to a faster rise, and the abundant treasure from my vegetable garden. Eating pizza in the great outdoors may also enhance the taste.

Today’s pick

My current favourite is Pizza Cinque Tesori or five treasures. Although my name for this pizza sounds exotic, the topping is quite restrained: it’s the taste of mid- summer. The pizza base is painted with a rustic tomato passata and a little grated mozzarella, then come the five treasures-  zucchini ribbons, flash grilled and dressed in garlic oil, a hand full of cooked shrimp, a finely sliced red onion, some capers and basil leaves.

Hand stretched base on baking paper, getting dressed for the oven.

These days I tend to hand stretch my pizza dough. After flattening the dough ball a little, I gently lift and stretch the sides, then let it rest for a few minutes. As the dough relaxes, stretching becomes easier. The dough then gets a long rest on the bench, fully dressed, before cooking. Laying it on kitchen parchment before stretching makes it easy to lift it onto a long rectangular baking tray.

Before baking

My Most Reliable Pizza Dough Recipe, updated and simplified.

  • 5 g active dry yeast ( 1¾ teaspoons)
  • ½ teaspoon sugar
  • 320 ml tepid water (1 1/3 cups)
  • 55 g olive oil ( ¼ cup)
  • 500 g baker’s flour or unbleached plain flour (3¾ cups )
  • 7.5 g sea salt (1 ½ teaspoons)

Stir the yeast and sugar into the water in the mixer bowl of a stand mixer and leave for a couple of minutes. Stir in the oil. Add the flour and salt to the yeast mixture. Mix, using the dough hook at very low speed at first, then increase to medium speed until soft and satiny but firm, about 5 minutes. Finish kneading briefly by hand on a lightly floured surface and form into a ball.

Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, turn to coat with the oil, cover tightly with plastic wrap or a shower cap and let rise until doubled. Depending on the room temperature this could take one to two hours. If your dough doesn’t rise, your yeast may be stale so always check the use by date.

Knead the dough briefly and gently on a lightly floured surface, for 1-2 minutes. Divide the dough into two. Leave the dough to rest another 15 minutes or so, under a cloth or tea towel, before shaping. Hand shape by stretching, resting and stretching again or use a rolling-pin if you prefer neat rounds. If hand stretching, I find it easier to place baking/parchment paper underneath beforehand.

Lift the stretched dough on large trays dusted with semolina or polenta or onto baking paper/parchment and let it rise for another 30 minutes, covered with a towel. Dress the pizza with your favourite toppings.

Oven temperatures and functions vary with from oven to oven. I use the pizza function on my Ilve, which heats the lower half of the oven higher than the top, at 250 c FF. I also use the lower rack for faster browning of the crust. This takes 8- 10 minutes. Using a regular fan forced oven, pre- heat to 250c and place on the centre shelf, drop the temperature to 220 c and bake for around 15 minutes, then check on the base.

 About flour for Pizza. Information for Melbourne, Australia

I tend to use Baker’s flour, which is stronger than plain white flour, for my pizze because I have a ready stash. Plain unbleached flour works well enough.

  • Wallaby Baker’s flour by Lowan comes in 5 kilo lots and is readily available at Coles.
  • I tend to use Manildra Baker’s flour, which comes in larger 12.5 kilo bags and buy this at Bas foods, Brunswick or Costco.
  • Preston Market stocks 12.5 kilo bags of Lowan white and wholemeal Spelt flour.
  • Cervasi supermarket, Brunswick, stocks a fluctuating array of Italian flours as does Psarakos in Thornbury and Bundoora.
  • Always check the milling date  as well as the use by date of any flour you buy, and support retailers who stock the freshest flour. Retailers with low turnover often unwittingly sell flour that is close to the use by date.
  • If you wish to try Italian flour Tipo oo, which is a highly processed, refined white flour, the liquid needs to be reduced significantly. I haven’t had much success using that soft flour for pizza, but it’s great for hand-made pasta. Carol Field’s description below is useful for those mystified by the zeros used to describe Italian flour:

‘The Italian baker has five grades of grano tenero to choose from, although they are classified not by strength and protein content like ours but by how much of the husk and whole grain have been sifted away. The whitest flour has the least fibre. The lower the number, the more refined and whiter the flour, so that of the five categories, “00” is the whitest and silkiest flour, “0” is a bit darker and less fine, since it contains about 70% of the grain, and “1” is even darker. Darker and courser is “2”. For all the talk of the prevalence of whole grain in the healthy Mediterranean diet, only a fairly small percentage of Italian breads are made with whole wheat (Pane Integrale)…Millers simply take refined white flour, stir in a quantity of bran, and pronounce it whole wheat. The Italian Baker, RevisedCarol Field. p 18.

Pizza Cinque Tesori

Where’s My Toga? Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe

The expression ‘Paese che vai, usanza che trovi’ is often spouted by Italians, as wise advice or an admonishment, I’m never sure which. The well-known English equivalent, ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do’, means exactly the same thing and is the golden rule for all travellers to foreign lands. Tourists in Rome however, can take this saying literally, especially when it comes to food.  I’ll eat like a Roman any day.

Non sto male, that’s for sure.

Some of the Roman meatless classics you are likely to find include spaghetti alle vongole verace, carciofi alla giudia, insalata di puntarella and my favourite Roman dish of all time, Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe.

A bowl of cacio e pepe: the creamy Pecorino sauce hides within.

I’ve had a few attempts at reproducing an autentico Spaghetti (or Tonnarelli) Cacio e Pepe over the years with varying success. The dish has only three ingredients yet is not so simple to make. There are a few magic techniques to master for a perfect result. After trawling through a variety of Italian sites, I’ve settled on the advice offered by the Giallo Zafferano site ( beware the advertisement bombardment on this site ). Many non-Italian sites add such things as butter or oil which ruin a good Cacio e Pepe. Don’t be misled by these recipes.

When making this cheesy peppery dish, keep in mind that the sauce will use the hot, starchy pasta cooking water. By gradually adding a small amount of this hot liquid to the grated cheese, a thick, non grainy sauce will form. The other trick is to toast the ground peppercorns in a large deep sided frying pan followed by added pasta water. This will make a starchy, peppery bath to finish cooking the semi- cooked pasta. When the pasta is added, it will absorb the extra liquid, a method similar to making risotto. It’s a good idea to read the details below a few times before beginning. If confusing, refer to the Giallo Zafferano site and watch the video demonstration of the creaming method.

Ingredients. For two large serves for a main meal.

  • 100 gr Pecorino Romano
  • 220 gr Spaghetti number 12 /(de Cecco brand is nice)
  • 5 gr whole black peppercorn ( you might not use all of this)
  • sea salt for pasta water.

Tools. Pasta pot, deep sided large frying pan or large non stick wok, small whisk, bowl, mortar and pestle, tongs, wooden spoon. Yes, only three ingredients and a whole lot of tools.

Method

  1. Grate the Pecorino.
  2. Boil the water in a pasta pot (use about half the usual amount of water to cook the pasta so it will be richer in starch) and salt well.
  3. When the water comes to a rolling boil, add the pasta. Timing is crucial here. If your pasta usually takes 10 minutes to cook al dente, set the timer for 8 minutes. You want the pasta to be slightly under cooked at this point.
  4. Meanwhile crush the peppercorns with a mortar and pestle or grinder. Pour half the ground pepper into a large frying pan or non stick wok and dry roast over low heat, stirring with a wooden spoon or tongs.
  5. Add a couple of ladles of pasta cooking water to the peppercorn pan. Bubbles should appear due to the starch contained in the water. Using tongs, lift the semi- cooked spaghetti into the frying pan, keeping aside the pot of cooking water.
  6. Stir the pasta about, using a wooden spoon or tongs. When the water is absorbed, add another ladle of pasta water and continue stirring. Continue adding a ladle of pasta water as needed.
  7. In the meantime, when you think the pasta is almost ready – and this can only be judged by tasting along the way – prepare the Pecorino cream.
  8. Pour half the grated Pecorino into a small mixing bowl. Add a few tablespoons of pasta cooking water and mix well with a whisk. When it is creamy, add more Pecorino and a little more cooking water, whisking all the while. Keep going in this way, holding back a little grated cheese for the final condiment.
  9. Finish cooking the pasta, adding a little more cooking water if necessary, before adding the Pecorino cream. Briefly mix the cream by placing the bowl over the steam of the pasta pot hot water, and stir with the whisk. This brings the cream back to the temperature of the pasta. Turn off the heat and add the Pecorino cream, stirring continuously with the kitchen tongs until well amalgamated.
  10. Serve adding more grated cheese and a little extra pepper. Mangia!
Chef on break. Roman laneways and trattorie.

Do as the Romans do, eat Cacio e Pepe autentico.

Risotto Invernale with Radicchio

According to market research, many people prefer recipes that take 27 minutes or less to make.¹ I think my patience level runs very close to this figure. A comforting risotto just fits it into this time frame, so long as you prep most of the ingredients as you go, which to me makes sense; it gives you something else to do while you are stuck beside that pan for 20 minutes or more, stirring, watching, and knocking back the wine you opened to make it.

Garden pickings. Radicchio, cavolo nero, winter’s Tuscan Kale and parsley. Add rice and parmesan to make a fortifying meal.

Risotto is my favourite winter food, especially when the garden provides winter loving treasure such as Cavolo Nero, the dark green Tuscan king of kale, and ruby coloured radicchio, a bitter leafed vegetable that adds colour and crunch to winter meals. As the morning temperatures drop below zero and the ground turns crunchy with white frost, these two plants come into their own. They love a cold snap.

Gazzono brand, Vialone Nano from the Mediterranean Wholesalers, Brunswick.

The other ingredients are fridge and pantry staples. Butter, olive oil, onion, good Italian rice and Parmigiano Grano Padano. Which rice is best for this task? I generally find that the cheaper brands of arborio produce a less appetising result. Although I do enjoy frugality, some cheaper ingredients make for false economy. One kilo of good quality Carnaroli or Vialone Nano rice goes a long way.

Chopped radicchio.

Risotto Invernale con Radicchio. Winter Radicchio Risotto. A step by step recipe. Ingredients for two large serves.

  • 1 cup good quality risotto rice ( Carnaroli or Vialone Nano)
  • 1 tablespoon EV olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1/2 small red onion, very finely chopped
  • 1/2 small carrot, very finely chopped( optional)
  • vegetable stock, homemade or made with a stock cube, around 3 cups or more
  • dry white wine such as Pinot Grigio
  • a small head of radicchio, finely sliced
  • black pepper
  • grated parmesan cheese, Reggiano or Grano Padano
  • more butter, a good knob

Chop half an onion into tiny dice and add it to a wide pan with a generous slurp of olive oil and butter. Although a diced carrot isn’t generally added to the base of a risotto, a little carrot adds some sweet notes, since radicchio can be quite bitter. As the onion gently cooks, bring a pot of vegetable stock to the boil and let it simmer next to your risotto pan.  I like to have more stock than most recipes suggest, just in case it’s needed. This can be either home-made or made from a stock cube. Open the white wine. Measure the rice. Cut a small head of radicchio into fine strips. Find a small butt of Parmesan cheese and ask someone to finely grate it.

The beginning of a risotto.

Add the rice. One cup of rice makes a generous meal for two people. Adjust the recipe for more people. Stir the rice to coat the grains- the rice will turn opaque – then add a big slurp of white wine, ( at least a quarter of a cup, though I  never measure it)  and stir well. At this point, you are allowed to begin drinking, to fortify you for the task ahead.

Step two, add the wine.

Once the wine has evaporated, begin adding the hot stock, one ladle full at a time. There’s no need to stir too vigorously or continually. The heat should be on medium to high, though I generally adjust this up and down as I go. When the stock evaporates, add another ladle, and continue this activity for around 20 minutes or so.

Risotto absorbing the stock.

Add the radicchio and the last ladle of stock and stir vigorously for around 5 minutes. The leaves will soften and the dish will become more creamy. Add a grinding of pepper.

Add the radicchio and last ladle of stock

The final and most important step. Add a good amount of parmesan and butter, la mantecatura, then cover and turn off the heat. Let it sit for 2 minutes.

Take off the lid and stir through the butter and cheese vigorously. The dish will become creamy and smooth. Shake the pan backwards and forwards to observe a wave movement ( all’onda)  in the mixture. If you think that the risotto is a little dry, add a small amount of hot stock and stir through well. You are aiming for a soft, creamy and well united dish that has a little wetness.

Serve with more parmesan.

One of the best things I’ve read about cooking in the last few weeks. ¹ https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/jun/18/great-recipe-explosion-social-media-does-more-mean-better-instagram-pinterest

Winter Limes and Spicy Salt

Limes are often associated with hot weather and all things tropical- Mojitos by the pool, spicy Thai food, Indian lime chutney, and Mexican guacamole, just to name a few treats where limes play a key role. Because of these culinary associations, I tend to feel like indulging in lime laced dishes in summer. And yet my own lime trees prefer to crop in the cooler months. One week before winter and the Tahitian limes are in their prime. This calls for a week of lime recipes.

Tahitian limes, Kaffir lime leaves and one knobbly Kaffir lime.

Soon after arriving at our new place, we planted three limes, three lemons, one orange, one mandarin and a kaffir lime. The limes are the happiest of all the citrus family. Given the glut, I have been exploring new ways of using them. Dried lime peel gives an interesting note to a spicy salt when mixed with dried chilli, another plant that grows so well in the garden, some Himalayan pink salt and a little smoked pimenton.

The ground components of a special salt.

Before juicing your limes for other recipes, peel them and place the zest or rinds in a heatproof container near a heat source. Mine dried in a terracotta container on top of a wood stove within minutes, perhaps too quickly. To maintain that green colour, leave them on a dish on a mantelpiece when the fire or gas is going. The peels, once hardened, are ready to use.

First gather your ingredients. Use organic limes and chillies if you have them on hand. Grind some whole dried chilli, then grind some dried lime peel and then measure the salt and pimenton. I prefer to mix the components after grinding them separately so that I can tweak the flavour if needed, but you can throw the whole lot in the grinder at once if you prefer.

Lime and Chilli Salt.

  • 1/2 cup sea salt flakes or Himalayan pink salt rocks
  • 2 tsp dried chilli flakes
  • 2 tsp dried lime peel
  • 1/2 tsp smoked paprika (pimenton)

Whizz the ingredients in an electric spice grinder. Store in a jar.

This salt gives a great flavour boost to plain foods such as fish, grilled chicken, breakfast eggs, or, as shown below, sprinkled on red rice and tuna fritters.

Today’s lunch. Red rice and tuna fritters with lime and chilli salt and a garden salad.

P.S. While on the subject of drying peels, I save all the mandarin and orange peels to dry in the same way. They provide a beautiful orange oil aroma to the atmosphere and work like magic as fire lighters. If you have an open fire or wood stove heater, I urge you to dry your citrus peels.