I like to eat soups in the height of summer, not necessarily cold soups, but light minestre of vegetables in season. They are thrown together and take around 20 minutes to cook, using whatever is abundant in the garden.
This vegetable soup is similar to the French Soupe au Pistou in many ways, but I am waiting on the garden’s fresh borlotti, i fagioli scritti, and green beans, before I go down that Provençal path.
1 onion, finely sliced
1 garlic, finely chopped,
2 tablespoons EV olive oil
4-5 chopped Roma tomatoes
1 medium zucchini, finely sliced
1 can of drained and well rinsed chick peas or white cannellini beans
¼ jar of home-made or purchased tomato passata
4 cups vegetable stock
small broken pieces of Mafaldine (flat ribbon) pasta or other dried pasta on hand
salt and pepper
freshly made pesto from a handful of basil leaves, two cloves garlic, salt, olive oil and pecorino, bashed to a pulp in a mortar and pestle. (Leave the nuts out when serving with soup.)
grilled bruschetta to go with the soup.
In a large heavy pot, add a generous slurp of olive oil and gently cook a sliced onion and a chopped garlic until soft but not coloured. Then add the vegetables as listed, stirring each new addition for a minute or so as you go. When they are almost cooked, after around 15 -20 minutes. add the some broken pieces of Mafladine and cook until the pasta is al dente. Season well. Serve in wide bowls with a dollop of freshly made basil pesto.
The pasta Mafaldine was named in honour of Princess Mafaldine of Savoy, daughter of King Vittorio Emmanuele 111, and is also known as reginette or “little queens”.
It’s hard to become bored with pasta, given all the wonderful shapes, names and colours available. Walking down the long pasta aisles of that famous Italian grocery shop in Melbourne is a step straight back into the supermarkets or alimentari of Lucca, Siena or Roma. Even my Italian visitors are impressed. Reading all the names on offer- little beards, little worms, bridegrooms, ribbons and shoestrings, priest stranglers, corkscrews, smooth or lined pens, partridge’s eyes and melon seeds, just to name a few- excites my culinary imagination and sends my mind into a spin. Capellini ( thin hair) pasta is very fine, though not cut as finely as Angel’s Hair, and is the perfect carrier for light dressings or gentle sauces such as seafood. It is sold in packets of nidi or nests which usually cook in around 3 minutes. Fast food never tasted so good.
Capellini con Gamberini, Pomodorini e Basilico- Capellini Pasta with school prawns, cherry tomatoes and basil.
Note: there are no numbers or weights given. Choose the quantities that go with your needs. I usually serve 100 g of pasta per person for a main meal dish, but serve less of the finer cut pasta, letting the ingredients have more limelight. Everything in this dish is kept small, denoted by the suffix ‘ini’ after all those nouns in the title, to go with the thin pasta.
vine ripened cherry or baby Roma tomatoes, halved
garlic cloves, finely chopped
EV olive oil
a few handfuls of local school prawns, cooked and peeled
tiny basil leaves, Globe or Greek
Boil a large pot of water for the pasta and add ample salt. Meanwhile, in a large frying pan, add the olive oil ( don’t be mean as the oil is part of the sauce) and heat, then add lots of finely chopped garlic and the chilli flakes to taste. Toss around for 1 minute, then add the halved cherry tomatoes until the split. Take off the heat.
Cook the pasta nests for the required amount of time then drain.
Return the frying pan to the heat, add the prawns to the garlic oil, toss about on a high heat, then add the drained pasta, the basil leaves and season. Amalgamate while heating through. Serve in warmed large bowls, with some good oil on the table.
School prawns are usually sold in Australia pre-cooked. They come from trawlers at Lakes Entrance, Victoria and are the sweetest prawns available, despite the amount of peeling to be done.
I have set myself a challenge this week: to complete all my semi- drafted recipes and half written posts.There are usually about 10 or more in the queue and most just fall by the wayside. Mr Tranquillo calls me the post pumper! It won’t last.
I’m not a religious person but am very partial to a good legend. The Epiphany, which falls on January 6th each year, is one of those. I usually celebrate the day with an exotic cake- something a little Middle Eastern, conjuring gold, frankincense and myrrh. The Epiphany marks the day when the Three Wise Men, Magi or Kings, found Jesus in Bethlehem after following a star for 12 days. All three scholars, from Babylonia, Persia and India, would have paid particular attention to the stars, each having an international reputation for astrology. What did they talk about along the way and what did they eat?
In Italy, the Epiphany is also marked by a visit from La Befana the night before. A benign old witch, she visits on a broomstick, bringing gifts to children in her sack- carbone or garlic to those who have been naughty, and caramelle or fruit to those who have been good, or a little of both. The family typically puts out a glass of wine and a small tasty treat for La Befana. This is an equally important part of the Christmas celebration, and in the past, before the commercialisation of Christmas, gifts were given on January 6th. Legend has it that La Befana was asked to accompany the Three Wise Men on their journey but was too busy with housework and so missed out. To this day, she rides about on the night of January 5th looking for the little baby.
I have made a banana cake to mark the day, using Stephanie Alexander’s recipe which always works out nicely, adding extra spice and some chopped cedro or frutta glassata leftover from the Panforte that I didn’t have time to make for Christmas (La Befana and I have a lot in common). The exotic part comes in the icing, which is laced with ground cardamom and sprinkled with chopped pistachio and a little more chopped cedro. The recipe comes from Selma, another shining star: her original cake and icing recipe can be found here.
Note. I halved Selma’s original, as I only had one larger cake to cover. I kept the quantity of coconut powder and milk and also used the ground seeds from more cardamom pods than listed, because I love that spice. Her icing recipe can be adapted to use on any cake.
Selma’s Coconut Cream Cheese and Cardamom Icing
3 Tbsp coconut powder
1-2 Tbsp warm milk
100 g cream cheese
125g mascarpone cheese
3-4 Tbsp icing sugar
ground seeds from 4 or more cardamom pods
chopped pistachios (optional)
edible dried rose petals (optional)
finely chopped cedro or glacé orange rind (optional)
While your banana cake is baking, make the icing: stir the coconut powder into warm milk until smooth. In a medium-sized bowl, mix together the cream cheese and the mascarpone with a rubber spatula then add the coconut mixture and stir in. Sift in the icing sugar, mixing well and taste after you have added half the sugar – it may be sweet enough. Stir in the cardamom powder and set aside in the fridge. When the loaves are cold, spread with the icing and top with the chopped pistachios and rose petals if using them.
As you can see, I added chopped glacé orange rind and pistachios. The iced cake stores well in a covered container in the fridge.
Notes and links
My earlier epiphany post and recipe for Almond and Honey Spice Cake from 2014 can be found here and includes the words to the famous poem about La Befana, which all Italian children learn, as do most young students of Italian in Australia.
Stephanie Alexander, The Cook’s Companion, 1996, p77
Cedro and other glacé fruits are available at The Royal Nut Company, Brunswick 3056. They have a great range.
This lovely animation by Arseny Lapin and music by Aquarium also reminds me of the Epiphany. One of my young Viking visitors adores it and asks for it often. He sings along in his perfect pitch soprano voice, imagining all sorts of things that a fish might whisper in a lady’s ear. If you like it too, play it to a young visitor and see what happens.
One of my most vivid memories of Palermo is its famous dressing, Salmoriglio, probably because it is so easy to recreate, especially during late Spring when the patch of oregano is at its peak. When I first tried this in a restaurant Palermo, it came drizzled over a thinly cut fillet of pesce spada, or swordfish, along with contorni, a platter of simply grilled vegetables. According to Marisa Raniolo Wilkins, in her cookbook, Sicilian Seafood Cooking, the name comes from its three main ingredients – salt (sale), lemon (limone), and oregano (origano).
Salmoriglio (or Salmorigano) Dressing.
4 tablespoons fresh oregano leaves
1 scant tablespoons sea salt flakes
2 tablespoons lemon juice
8 tablespoons EV olive oil
Pound the oregano leaves with the salt in a mortar and pestle. When it forms a paste, add the lemon juice, then the oil and grind in some black pepper. Store in a jar and see how many ways you can use it over a week. As a cold sauce, it is best applied to hot food and then smell all the elements of the ingredients come alive.
‘To eat in Sicily is also to feel that one is tasting the very beginnings of Italian food history. The island has been conquered by virtually every dominant Mediterranean power of the last two or three thousand years’.¹
Inspired by two recent purchases of Sicilian cookbooks, I began to peruse the others in my collection with renewed interest. I have these books strewn about, moving from one to the other, excited by the differences and similarities and the historical references in each, some attributing Turkish and Greek influence to a style of biscuit, others noting the strong Arabic and North African legacy. So while the search is on for a make-ahead biscuit or bread for Christmas, I subject myself to a wonderful distraction as I travel back through that perfumed land of orange blossom and jasmine, the land of ancient Greek monuments, where the sea is never far away from where you are, that land of robust and exotic flavours: Sicily. I hear the words of the 12th century traveller, geographer and cartographer, the Muslim scholar al-Abu Abd Allah Muhammad al-Idrisi al-QurtubiHasani al-Sabti, or simply al Idrisi of Palermo, who was employed by King Roger 11 of Sicily. For 15 years, al Idrisi studied and journeyed, consulting other travellers to produce his great geography book, A Diversion for the Man Longing to Travel to Far off Places. The Sicily that al Idrisi recorded was an island of “carefully watered orchards and gardens where generations of Muslim technical expertise and commercial know-how had bequeathed a rich agriculture of lemons, almonds, pistachio nuts, cane sugar, dates, figs, carobs and more.”² I am there, back in that royal 12th Century court, where “Latin, Hebrew, Greek, Arabic and the dialects of Northern France could all be heard.”³ Did they also eat these delicately spiced Cuddureddi biscuits as they discussed the wonders of the world? One will never know. But as King Roger employed Muslim chefs, I have a fair idea that they did. Cooking can be so distracting for a time traveller like me.
One of the recent purchases, Sicilian Food, Recipes from Italy’s Abundant Isle by Mary Taylor Simeti, 1999, was introduced to me by Debi, at My Kitchen Witch whose recommendations I always trust and inevitably enjoy reading. They are books about cooking, but never contain glossy photographs. Simetti’s book is well researched, documented and timeless. The other, Sicilian Seafood Cooking, by Marisa Raniolo Wilkins, an Australian author with Sicilian heritage, came via a reminder from Roger ( not the Norman King of Sicily) at Food Photography and France whose blog is amusing and often outrageously so. I thank both of you for adding to my divertimento.
This recipe for Cuddureddi Siciliani biscuits comes from My Taste of Sicily by Dominique Rizzo, another Italo-Australiana, and was the most appealing of all the versions in my collection. Dominique learnt it from her Zia Nunzia. The biscuits contain all the essence of Sicily in one Christmassy filling: almonds, pine nuts, walnuts, figs, sultanas and currants, orange peel and marmalade, cinnamon and cloves, dark chocolate and vanilla, with a pastry moistened with Marsala. Eaten without savouring, they do resemble an English mince-pie, but are far more subtle and less cloying.
Cuddureddi Siciliani; makes 20 biscuits
260 g plain flour
70 g caster sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 pinch salt
125 g unsalted butter, chopped
1 tablespoon Marsala
18o ml milk
40 g icing sugar ( for dusting cooked biscuits )
150 g dried figs
35 g slivered almonds
1 tablespoon pine nuts
1 tablespoon chopped walnuts
100 g currants
50 g sultanas
3 teaspoons orange marmalade
finely grated zest of 1 orange
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
1 vanilla pod, split and seeds scraped or 1/4 teaspoon vanilla paste
45 g dark couverture chocolate (70 %), chopped or sliced finely.
Sift together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt, then transfer to a food processor. Add the butter and process until the mixture resembles course breadcrumbs. Add the Marsala to the milk, then with the motor running, add a little of the milk mixture to the flour at a time, processing until it forms a soft dough. Knead the dough on a floured board for 2 minutes, working as quickly as possible to prevent the dough from softening. Roll the dough into a ball, cover with plastic film and leave to rest in the fridge for 1 hour.
2. Cover the figs with boiling water and let them soak for 15 minutes. Drain, remove and discard the stalks. Finely chop the figs.
3. Preheat oven to 200c.
4. Place the almonds, pine nuts and walnuts on a baking tray and roast for a few minutes, and watch that they don’t colour too much. Remove and set aside.
5. Mix the figs, almonds, pine nuts, walnuts, currants, sultanas, marmalade, orange zest, cinnamon, cloves, vanilla and chocolate in a bowl. Transfer half of the mixture to a food processor and process for 3 seconds or until it comes together to form a rough paste. Return to the bowl and stir to combine. Set aside.
6. Reduce the temperature to 180c. Lightly grease ( or paper) two baking trays. Briefly knead the dough, then roll it out on a floured work surface until 2 mm thick. Cut the dough into 7 cm rounds with a pastry cutter, then place 1 tablespoon of filling in the centre of each round. Top with another round and brush the edge with a little milk. Press the edges together to form a round pillow.
7. Place the filled biscuits on the baking tray and bake for 2o minutes. Dust immediately with icing sugar and leave to cool. Serve warm or at room temperature. These biscuits will keep in an airtight container for up to two weeks.
I found 1 tablespoon of filling too much for the size of these biscuits and recommend that you lessen the quantity to fill the biscuits without splitting the pastry. Be guided by your intuition here.
You will probably not use very much of the Marsala/milk mixture to bring together the pastry. I suggest keeping the Marsala and lessening the amount of milk.
As the recipe is a long one, I suggest making the filling ahead, covering and storing it, then making the pastry and baking on a later day.
These are very rewarding biscuits to make. Other versions include honey, Vincotto and use durum wheat in the pastry. Other shapes are formed too, which I may explore in a future post.
Although not a book about Sicilan cookery, I drew heavily on the opening chapters of John Dickie’s book, Delizia! The Epic History of the Italians and Their Food, Free Press, New York, 2008 which is still my favourite book about Italian food and doesn’t contain a single recipe.
¹ John Dickie, Delizia! The Epic History of the Italians and Their Food, p 15
2 John Dickie, Delizia! The Epic History of the Italians and Their Food. p.19
3 John Dickie, Delizia! The Epic History of the Italians and Their Food. P 23
The difference between English and Italian always fascinates me, especially when it comes to cooking terms. Not only does Italian sound beautiful, it often seems more accurate and visual. Take, for example, one of the Italian terms used for stuffing. When stuffing vegetables, squid or mussels, the word used is ripieni/e, which literally translates to re-filled. When I scrape out the centre of a zucchini or eggplant, or the guts of a calamari, I am visualising a new filling, un ripieno.
The English term, stuffed, seems much less desirable: it sounds crude and ordinary. In the last twenty years or so, the word has become the more acceptable term for the volgare, to fuck. ‘I’m stuffed, I can’t be stuffed, stuff it, get stuffed!’- are now quotidian versions of that vulgar form, but we all know what is indicated. How language evolves! I know that when I’m really annoyed, or sometimes even playful, I head straight to the ancient, Germanic sounding version, and don’t waste my time with stuffing or any grammatical forms thereof.
The recipe below makes an easy and fast entrée and is a good stand by.
Funghi Ripieni con Stracchino e Gremalata/ Stuffed Mushrooms with Stracchino and Gremolata.
8 large Portobello mushrooms, stems removed
½ cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil or more
¼ of one round of Stracchino cheese
1 cup day old breadcrumbs, sourdough or other rustic bread
2 teaspoons very finely chopped fresh rosemary
finely chopped fresh oregano
2 cloves of finely chopped garlic,or to taste.
Heat oven to 180c.
Lay mushrooms on lined baking tray. Use foil or baking paper as this enables the juice to be retained as the mushrooms cook. Fill the cavities with lumps of Stracchino cheese.
Mix the chopped herbs and garlic with half the breadcrumbs, wet a little with the oil. Add to the top of the cheese filled mushrooms. Add more crumbs to the top.
Using an oil pourer, liberally dress the top of the mushrooms with oil as well as around the base. You want some oil to reach under the mushrooms too.
Cook in the oven until the tops begin to brown and the mushrooms soften. The mushrooms will ooze some lovely juice. Serve two per person, drizzle with the juice from the pan and add a side salad of dressed bitter leaves such as radicchio.
Note- in the past I have tended to use fetta or even better, Persian fetta to stuff mushrooms, along with thyme and garlic in the topping. Stracchino cheese makes a nice change, given that it is a runny and very bland cheese, allowing the stronger tasting herbs to star.