As part of my return to more regular blogging, I’ve decided to highlight a different pantry staple each month, since we’re all spending far more time in our kitchens. My concoctions are mostly vegetarian, except for the occasional addition of anchovy. You can find most of my recipes from the last six years by clicking on the word Recipe, found on the left hand side Index of this page. This may appear in a different spot if using a phone. The recipes are filed under different categories and most of them rely on seasonal food or frugal pantry staples. This month’s offerings will focus on pulses- which include all styles of lentils, split peas and dried beans. Today’s lentil dish is an Italian version of split green pea soup, a dish you would normally find in British or Portuguese/Spanish cuisines, laced with salty ham bones. I was keen to try Marcella Hazan’s version: it’s economical and nutritious. The recipe does ask for the addition of some parmesan cheese, making the dish quite Italian in style: remove the cheese and the soup resembles the old style split pea potage or caldo. I enjoyed this Italian version, it has a much finer texture than others of this genre, but I’m looking anxiously at my small wedge of remaining Parmigiano Reggiano, knowing that it might best be reserved for pasta and risotto dishes. To anyone out there who is still shopping, can you please bring me a very large wedge of Parmigiano Reggiano or Grano Padano. First world problems.
Most recipes require a little tweaking and this was certainly the case for Marcella’s recipe here. She doesn’t suggest pre-soaking the split green peas overnight but I advise on the importance of this preliminary step to hasten the cooking. The following recipe includes my adaptations. It is easy to scale up the recipe for a larger group or to store for later.
Zuppa di Piselli Secchi e Patate ( split green pea and potato soup)
For 4 people.
220 g split green peas, washed, and then soaked overnight.
2 medium potatoes, peeled and chopped in cubes.
1.5 litres of fresh stock or made with a stock cube. ( you may need more )
1 chopped onion
3 Tbles extra virgin olive oil
40 gr butter
3 Tbles freshly grated parmesan cheese
salt and pepper to taste.
Soak the peas overnight. Drain and cook with the potatoes at a moderate boil in 700 ml of stock ( or enough to cover well). Cook until both are tender, then puree the mixture with their cooking liquid in a mouli and reserve. ( don’t be tempted to blend this soup- the beauty comes from the light texture derived from the mouli )
Put the onion into a heavy based soup pot with the oil and butter and sauté over medium heat until soft and golden.
Add the puree to the onions, then add the remaining stock and bring to a moderate boil. Lower heat, and check on liquid- you may need more, depending on how thick/thin you like your soup. When ready, stir in the grated cheese, taste for salt. Serve with more parmesan and crostini.
This soup keeps well in the refrigerator for several days, but will need thinning with more water on reheating. As you thin it, you may need to add a little more stock powder or salt.
It’s shopping day. Come along with me to the Brunswick Market, not many Melburnians know about it. The uninviting blue concrete facade gives no hint of the treasure hidden within. I’ll lead the way, just follow me down through the windowless cavern, past the Turkish Kebab place on the left ( try to resist their big bowl of red lentil soup or the eggy Shanklish ) and the Iraqi Barber on the right, the one favoured by Mr T for $15 haircuts. In the centre of the hall is an open sided cafe, whose owner set up about 18 months ago. She is now doing well. Her gozleme are as soft as fresh lasagne, stuffed with intense green spinach, and receives my ‘Best Gozleme in Melbourne’ award. We’ll grab one on the way out. She makes other savoury pastries, including potato and onion Borek and Simit, as well cakes filled with almond meal and nuts. There are many other specialty stalls here: a shoe shop and repair business run by a Greek man, a mobile phone fixit guy, run by a Chinese man, a clothing alteration store, a Turkish CD shop, just in case you fancy a bit of belly dancing on the way through, and a clothing store selling nazar boncuğu, those lucky blue eye amulets, hijabs, colourful scarves and outrageous silver embossed leggings.
Here we are at the food section. In the centre is a large Turkish deli, specialising in all sorts of yoghurt, brined cheeses, grains, pulses and condiments such as Pekmez and Biber Salçası. Further along is the Vietnamese fish shop. They also manage supplies for hotels and restaurants so you can order anything you fancy. The fish here is sparkling fresh and they know the source of all species on offer. Ask the lovely woman from Hanoi to shuck six Tasmanian oysters for you then devour them on the spot. Over from the Vietnamese fish shop is the Italian butcher, with his sign, Vendiamo Capretti ( we sell young goat). His pork sausages, full of fennel, chilli and spice, are the best in Melbourne according to my carnivore sons.
Until recently, there was a Halal butcher shop and a free range chicken shop but both have recently closed. A sign of things to come? Finally we get to Russell’s fruit shop, owned by Turks but staffed by Nepalese and Indians. It’s the busy end of the market where you can find the things that never turn up in supermarkets: knobbly yellow quinces, tables full of cheap pomegranates, ready to split and reveal their bijoux, piles of red peppers, shiny and irregularly shaped, curly cucumbers, every kind of bean- Roman, Snake, Borlotti, lime coloured Turkish snake peppers grown in Mildura, rows of eggplants, long, short, miniature and striped. It’s the antithesis of a modern supermarket.
Part of this walk involves chatting. While buying red lentils at the Turkish deli, I’ve nodded politely as two ladies gave me their different versions of the best way to make Mercimek Köftesi, orred lentil kofte. I once went halves in a kilo of filleted Western Australian sardines at the fish shop. An Egyptian woman told me in detail how she would cook her half. People love to talk about food here. You will also be recognised and remembered. And the hipsters of Brunswick? They mostly avoid the place. I wonder why?
Fresh fish stall, Brunswick Market.
My market friend.
Fresh fish at the Brunswick Market. Knowing the source. Ready to chat and clean to order.
Red Lentil Soup with Minted Eggplant is based on a recipe by Leanne Kitchen. The original recipe ( see below) makes a truck load. I halved the quantities and still had enough for 6 bowls. I also lessened the salt, added 2 tablespoons of Biber Salçası ( Justin Bieber in a jar) and kept the amount of garlic. The original is pale in colour. With the added Biber paste, the soup looks more vivid. Eggplants are now in season, and red lentils are one of my favourite budget foods. Eat well for less.
150 ml extra virgin olive oil
2 onions, finely chopped
625 g red lentils
2.5 litres chicken or light vegetable stock
60 ml freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 tablespoons salt
500 g eggplant ( about 1 large) cut into 1 cm pieces
2 cloves garlic, crushed
3 teaspoons dried mint
2/½ teaspoons sweet paprika
3 tablespoons fresh mint, chopped, to serve.
Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook for 6-7 minutes or until softened but not brown. Add the lentils and stock, then bring to a simmer, skimming the surface to remove any impurities. Add the Biber Salçası if using. Reduce heat to low, partially cover the pan, and simmer for 40-50 minutes. Add the lemon juice, salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Meanwhile sprinkle the salt over the chopped eggplant in a colander and set aside for 20 minutes. Rinse the eggplant, then drain and pat dry. Heat the remaining oil in a large, heavy based frying pan over medium high heat. Ass the eggplant and cook for 6 minutes turning often, until golden and tender. Ass the garlic and cook for 2 minutes then add the dried mint and paprika and cook for another minute or until fragrant.
To serve, divide the soup among the bowls and spoon over the eggplant mixture and scatter with the fresh mint.
Recipe by Leanne Kitchen. Turkey. Recipes and tales from the road. Murdoch Books Pty Ltd 2011.
Brunswick Market, 655 Sydney Road, Brunswick. Let’s hope this market survives as the sweep of gentrification and apartment wonderland takes over the inner city.
When the first suggestion of Winter arrives, right in the middle of Autumn, it’s a reminder to gather wood for the fires and adjust the wardrobe and mental outlook for the oncoming cold season. Many Melburnians still have their head in the sand, believing that Australia is a hot place. For six months of the year, it’s cold and inhospitable, with dreary grey skies dominating the landscape, and black dressing de rigeur. Out come the Michelin man garments, those unflattering and un-environmental puffer jackets and vests that work rather well, along with fingerless gloves, berets and warm leggings, umbrellas and wind jackets. I’m not a fan of Winter but in theory, it does have a certain romantic appeal.
And that appeal centres around soup. Late Autumn soups become thick and creamy, a French purée or perhaps an Italian crema. Lunchtime zuppa del giorno loaded with beans or pulses, is eaten as a piatta unica withcrusty bread. Vegetarian shepherds pie makes a comeback, Autumn’s new eggplants feature in rich Turkish fare dressed with Pekmez, and the day might culminate with a sharp cheddar cheese served with whisky laced fig jam, a salty, sweet and peaty treat beside the fire. Served with a single malt of course.
One of my favourite creamed soups, Cullen Skink, features smoked fish. Cullen is a small fishing village on the east coast of Scotland and is well worth a visit, while Skink ( no, not a small lizard) may be derived from soups made with shins or ham bones. There are as many versions of Cullen Skink as there are Scots. Some like it chunky: others, like me, prefer it pureed. The main thing that each recipe has in common is simplicity: potatoes, smoked fish, onions and milk. Once you begin adding fresh fish, or bacon or any other bits and pieces, the soup becomes a chowder.
Cullen Skink, for four servings or two greedy sized servings.
I tablespoon butter
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 large stick celery, finely chopped
2 large potatoes, peeled and cut into 1cm cubes
300 ml water
250 g smoked haddock, or mackerel, skin on.
1 bay leaf
250 ml milk
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley or chives
In a large heavy based saucepan, sauté the onion and celery till soft. Add the potatoes and cover barely with water. Bring to the boil, lower to medium heat and cook until the potatoes are soft.
Meanwhile, in a separate pan, add the milk, smoked fish and bay leaf. Bring to the boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 8 minutes or so while the potatoes are cooking.
Remove the fish from the milk. Skin the fish, carefully remove the flesh, discard all the bones and skin, then strain the milk back into the pot containing the potato. Add the flaked fish. Bring back to high heat. Then puree using a hand-held stick blender. Add more milk or cream to thin a little if you prefer. Reheat,
Add finely chopped parsley or chives to serve, with crusty bread.
* The choice of smoked fish is important. Look for small, dark whole fish, not the supermarket, chemically dyed yellow cod, or smoked salmon or trout, the latter being too mild in flavour. New Zealand readers will have more options as more varieties of smoked fish are readily available in NZ supermarkets and fishmongers.
An interesting Guardian article about the ins and outs of Cullen Skink can be found here.
Which season do you prefer? What are your thoughts on Puffer Jackets? Do you like smoked foods?
This is an old stand- by soup, made when I need to charge my batteries. It requires minimal thought and is adaptable, relying on 3 basic elements: onion, potato and a pile of greens. This week’s green soup was made from zucchini, silver beet ( chard), parsley and basil. In winter, I make it with half a bunch of celery and add a few dark leaves for colour. The outside, often discarded, green leaves of an iceberg lettuce make an excellent addition. Peas go well. Any soft, non- bitter leaves will do. I don’t usually use a recipe but today, I am attempting to add quantities. It’s a great recipe for beginners in the kitchen as well as worn out cooks too.
Super Green Soup
400 gr potatoes, peeled and roughly chopped
200 gr onions, peeled and roughly chopped
1 kilogram of greens, such as, zucchini, silver beet leaves and stems, outside leaves of an iceberg lettuce, young Cos lettuce leaves, parsley, celery, basil etc, roughly chopped or torn.
1 vegetable stock cube
Add the chopped potato and onion to a pot. Add a good pinch of salt and cover with water. Cook for 10 minutes, then add all the greens. After another 10 minutes, check that everything is soft. Don’t overcook or you will lose the bright green colour. Puree with a stick blender, return to pot. Add the stock cube. Add some cream if you don’t feel too purist. Serve with chopped chives and ground pepper.
Strangely enough, February is the busiest month of the year in my kitchen. It’s also the hottest month in Melbourne, although this year we have been spared ( touch wood) those soaring temperatures of over 40ºC. The kitchen frenzy comes with the flushing of major annual crops such as zucchini, tomato, cucumber, chilli and now plums. It’s a bumper year for plums. I have another 5 kilo waiting for me in the fridge. Our annual beach camp is interspersed with busy times back at home preserving and freezing crops for the cooler months, as well as watering the garden and clearing away the fire hazardous leaves and fallen branches. The Sagra delle Prugne is around the corner.
Meanwhile, we eat simply and cheaply. When not eating zucchini fritters or Moulin Rouge Tomato Soup, I turn to Vietnam for inspiration. Cá nấu cà chua, fish, tomato and dill soup, is perfect for a hot day. I found this recipe last year while in Saigon and now that summer has arrived, I am delighted to make it with my own produce. The fish market at Preston provided the economical red snapper for this dish. Light and sustaining, it tastes like a wet version ofcha ca la vong.
While at the market, I purchased a big pile of local Southern Squid for $5 a kilo. Yes, there’s an hour’s work gutting and preparing these for the freezer but my little ones love fried squid after a swim in the pool. The best day to buy squid is on the day the market opens for the week. In the case of our nearest fish market, that’s Wednesday morning. Squid needs to be super fresh to compete with is pricey relative, the calamari. How can you tell squid from calamari? Australian southern squid, the most sustainable seafood in Australia, has an arrow shaped tail, whereas the calamari has side wings.
At the same fish monger, I bought some fresh river shrimp from the Clarence river in NSW. These are tiny and eaten whole. They make an excellent beer snack with a little lime aoili. A tempura batter, made with iced water, baking powder and cornflour, protects them as they fry. A pre-prepared salt of interest is also a good accompaniment. I used Herbes De Provence with salt, a batch I made before Christmas. I love special salts and am about to make a celery seed salt and one from our chilli flush. These salts make cheating easy.
To mop up the big soups and fried things, one needs a large cloth napkin. These lovely cotton towels, seconds, turned up in a linen shop in Brunswick for $2 a set. I bought them all. They soften and improve with washing.
Last week I celebrated the summer zucchini plague on Almost Italian. This zucchini slice is handy and well known. I added almond meal to the mix for a lighter version. It comes with grated carrot, zucchini, chopped capsicum and herbs.
This hungry lad has finally learnt to make a good tuna pasta in my kitchen. It is an easy dish for a 12 year old to learn. Practice makes perfect Noah.
And what would be an IMK post without my little Cheffa, Daisy, who always drags her stool to the bench to help with anything I am making.
Good food does come at a price around here, not so much in monetary terms but certainly in labour. Thank you kindly Liz, at Good Things, for your gracious hosting of this monthly link up.
Warning. This post is not about religion but bread, although it’s hard to resist segueing into the religious connotations associated with bread, not to mention bread’s best mate, wine. As these two life-giving basics feature often in my daily life, I give thanks but I’m not sure who to. I remember the ending of the Lord’s prayer quite well: it always signified the end of Mass which meant freedom was just around the corner. I also recall the hilariousMondegreen* of my younger sister’s friend, Cecilia, whose child’s voice could be heard clearly from a nearby pew, as she chanted
“Give us this day our daily bread…. and deliver us from eagles, Amen”
I rather like this alternate ending and I think my chickens feel the same way too.
The joys of bread are almost too numerous to list. Unassuming and humble, bread is central to most western meals. The breaking of bread at the table amongst friends, the dipping of bread into new season’s olive oil, the grilling of bread for bruschetta or the morning toasting of yesterday’s loaf, smothering it with quince jam, or Vegemite, or just butter. The dunking of bread into soup, or the submerging of bread under Italian Ribollita or French onion soup. The left over stale loaf crumbed and stored to top a future gratin, or cubed then baked in garlicky oil for croutons. Given the effort gone into baking a good loaf of bread, (even if you haven’t made it yourself), it seems a sin to waste it.
Bread making has a certain rhythm: once the pattern is broken, it takes a bit of discipline to get it all happening again. My sourdough bread takes 24 hours to come to fruition: one day of feeding my starter, beginning at 7 am, with 4-5 hours between each feed. One evening of mixing and stretching, which takes very little time, but requires my presence at home. An overnight rise of around 8 hours followed by an early start at around 6 am to shape, rise and re- shape at 7 am. Into the oven, a 40 minute bake, and there you have it. Fresh bread by 8 am, 24 hours later. Cost, around 50 cents a loaf. Very little work, but bucket loads of discipline, and a ritualistic start to each day, not unlike meditating or praying.
The aroma of freshly baked bread is a morning sensory pleasure, only to be rivalled by the smell of a good curry in the evening or the aroma of slow baked quinces on a chilly Autumn day.
Don’t waste good bread. Sermon over.
“A mondegreen is a mishearing or misinterpretation of a phrase as a result of near homophony that gives it a new meaning. Mondegreens are most often created by a person listening to a poem or a song; the listener, being unable to clearly hear a lyric, substitutes words that sound similar, and make some kind of sense. American writer Sylvia Wright coined the term in 1954, writing about how as a girl she had misheard the lyric “…and laid him on the green” in a Scottish ballad as “…and Lady Mondegreen”
“Pinker gives the example of a student stubbornly mishearing the chorus to ” I’m Your Venus” as I’m your penis, and being surprised that the song was allowed on the radio.
Spring is finally sending her beautiful vegetables from the garden to my kitchen. The first and most evocative of these is the artichoke. Carciofi, artichokes, are fiddly to prepare, requiring removal of most of their outer leaves while simultaneously bathing their cut bodies in acidulated water before they bruise and darken. It really is worth the effort.
I love carciofi gently braised with garlic, lots of good oil, a little water, a grind of salt, and handful of torn herbs, eaten straight out of the pot with some crusty bread. I love them creamed in a Spaghetti ai Carciofi, bringing back memories of tiny trattorie in Rome. I love them thinly sliced on a pizza. Mr T does not share my passion: there is something quite odd about that man, which was the subject of my very first post back in October, 2013.
So many of my artichokes now get the ART for Artichoke treatment because he won’t eat them and I can’t eat them all. This arty thing began in the 1990s when Daniella, the sister of a good friend, Sandro Donati, had a photographic exhibition featuring artichokes, beautiful black and white studies which included portraits of her mother: moody, melancholic, and molto Italiano. In that same year, I came across a book, with a forward by Lorenza de’ Medici, with stunning reproductions of works by Giovanna Garzani, ( 1600-1670), an artist who painted delicate still lives featuring fruit and vegetables. These two memories have influenced how I see vegetables. Why stick flowers in a vase when the garden is singing with other more spectacular stems? When I arrange and photograph artichokes, I am really lusting for their creamy bitterness in my mouth.
Other herbal candidates entering my kitchen are given the art treatment too. Broad beans in flower, over grown stems of celery, sage bushes flowering purple, stalks of dark rosemary: ‘There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember.’ There are small tussie mussies of fragrant mixed herbs, bowls of lemons, fronds of wild fennel. Primavera nella mia cucina.
Sadly, I lost three hens to the foxes recently so we’re down to a dozen eggs a day. I sell a few here and there but always keep a basket of eggs in the kitchen, prompting a simple breakfast or a cake for someone. There is no need to refrigerate your eggs unless you plan to keep them for more than two weeks. I don’t clean the shells, if dirty, until I’m ready to use them. Cleaning eggs removes the natural protective layer, the cuticle or bloom from the shell, which preserves their freshness.
This month I have enjoyed researching the breads and sweets of Italy baked for the Day of the Dead, I Morti, on November 1/2. In Australia, Halloween was not celebrated until very recent times. Over the last 10 years, it has slipped into our language, led by commercial interests of course. The whole thing, in Australia at least, seems culturally artificial to me. I am now teaching my little ones about Celtic and Italian customs to counter the purple wigs and lolly bags entering their homes. They listen with wide-eyed wonder. Young Oliver leans in close and whispers ‘slipping through the crack of time’, though he turned up his nose at myFave dei Morti.
With all the bread I make, the little stove top griller pan with the heavy ridged lid, gets a constant workout. Stale sourdough comes to life when simply grilled and rubbed with garlic and dressed with new olive oil.
Australian Cobram Extra Virgin Olive oil is reliably good, winning prizes around the globe. Last May’s (2016) olive harvest and press has just hit the shelves. Look for harvest dates on your containers of oil. This information is more reliable than use- by-dates. The closer you are to the harvest date, the better the oil. Store large tins of oil in the dark. Decant the oil into clean pouring jars. When visiting an olive oil producer in Margaret River back in 2006, I was informed that adding lovely fresh oil to the oil that has been left in a pouring jar, even if only a few drops remain, tainted the fresh oil with already oxidised oil. Makes sense really.
Melbourne’s cold Spring has seen the return of the hearty soup to my kitchen. This thick meal in a bowl, Zuppa Frantoiana, is a soup which celebrates the first pressing of the season’s olive oil. The soup is layered with oil and grilled bread in a tureen before serving.
Speaking of Sandro, (see somewhere above), I’m including a little clip of one of his joyous Friulian songs. La Banda di Sandro blended traditional jazz with Italian folk sung in the Friulian dialect. Hey, just for fun, and just because I wish he and Judy were back in my kitchen; I know they would eat all the carciofi and then ask for more.
Thanks to Liz, at Good Things, the In My Kitchen series continues. Do check out some of the other kitchens on her site this month. Saluti a Tutti.
It is hard to imagine a world without pasta. Italian style pasta was unknown to most Australian households until the 1970s, despite the presence of Italian pasta manufacturers here in Melbourne. One of the earliest producers of quality pasta, Nello Borghesi, established La Tosca Company in 1947 in Bennett’s Lane, Melbourne. They eventually moved to a larger factory in Brunswick in 1971.
“Before then, Melbourne’s Italian community were largely the only customers of this fine pasta. By the 1970s many new Italian restaurants emerged: it was, for many families of Anglo-Saxon background, the first time they had tasted real pasta beyond spaghetti or macaroni from a can.” ¹
Dried pasta could be bought in supermarkets, especially around Carlton and Brunswick, but it was still unusual to eat pasta at home regularly, and when it did make a regular appearance, it came only in one form: the ubiquitous Spaghetti Bolognese.
‘The Borghesi found it challenging at first to introduce the pasta to the Anglo-Australian consumers. The Italian Australian market also had to be convinced that the product was as good as that which they could make themselves. The pasta would be made in the mornings, then delivered in the afternoons in the family van. It was a very labour intensive process and the whole family would help in the production. Deliveries were made to most Melbourne Italian food outlets and restaurants, such as Florentino’s, The Latin, and Mario’s. By the 1960s, the clientele grew to catering for weddings and non-Italian cafes, and then the business really took off. In the 1960s, the delivery of dry pasta was replaced by frozen products.”¹
The Borghesi business and I became very well acquainted in 1997 when I decided to take a job at La Tosca Pasta Company in Victoria Street, Brunswick, a suburb of Melbourne. This short-lived factory job was wedged between one era of teaching and another, a time when I felt lost in my search for meaningful work. I took the job thinking that it might be interesting to work in a completely different field, to do some physical work for a change, and that the Italian staff might help me acquire a better grasp of idiomatic Italian. I had finished a degree in Italian, followed by three years translating an autobiography. Without daily interaction in Italian, I feared that I might lose the language. So off to La Tosca I went.
Our working day started at 8 am precisely. We would begin by moving the racks of drying spaghetti, linguine or tagliatelle which had been stored on wooden drying rods in darkened rooms overnight. The pasta was carefully scooped off the rods, taking care not to break any of the brittle strands, and bundled neatly onto the bench for packing. Each stack was then weighed to a precise weight: after a while it was easy to gauge this visually. The pasta was placed in small boxes, ready for the machine to wrap and seal with the La Tosca logo. These packets were then placed in large boxes, twenty to a box, ready for the delivery trucks. The work was relentless and swift: there was no time for conversation beyond the conveying of basic instructions.
At 10 am on the dot, a whistle would sound, and a short Neapolitan woman would yell “Andiamo,” let’s go. All activity ceased instantly, machines and work stations were abandoned, the factory floor silenced by the call to coffee. We climbed the narrow stairs in single file and gathered in a cramped morning tea room above the factory floor for a piccolo cafe ristretto, made in an old beaten up aluminium Napolitana by the Andiamo lady. Ten minutes later it was back to work. Huge dough mixers gyrated above, operated by men on platforms, moving effortlessly in a noisy industrial ballet. Other machines chugged permanently in the background- pasta cutters, ravioli stuffers, packing machines- the factory floor was alive with mechanical noise. The strong coffee kept us going for more back-breaking work, boxing, stacking, wrapping, then sweeping, constantly inpiedi for the 8 hour working day. I lasted for about 6 weeks at the La Tosca Pasta factory- the unremitting noise eventually drove me demented, my legs longed for that moment of rest and my back was trashed. I began to consider other forms of paid work.
In that short time, I came to admire the endurance and stamina of these women who had worked in factories since migrating to Australia in the 1950s and 60s, sturdy middle- aged and older women, dressed in sensible and spotlessly clean factory uniforms, standing solidly on concrete floors in stockinged legs and sensible shoes. The work was hard and relentless. They made the pasta that Melbourne came to love.
Melbourne’s Italianita´can be found far more easily without taking such drastic steps, as I was to discover. Inner city libraries specialise in Italian film and magazine collections, there is a local Italian newspaper, Il Globo, an annual Italian film festival, numerous Italian regional and cultural clubs as well as fresh markets, delis, restaurants, and Italian supermarkets. Melbourne’s Italian manufacturing centred around pasta, cheese making, salami and shoes, though this was far more pronounced in the last century than it is today.
Zuppa di Ceci con Maltagliati-Chick pea soup with Pasta Offcuts.
I recently made a large batch of pasta and after cutting the square shapes for some cannelloni, I was left with a nice pile of maltagliati, irregular shaped off cuts. ( I often call these cenci or stracci too ) These little pieces make a wonderful addition to a rustic soup, which can be thrown together in minutes, becoming a meal in a bowl. Like many good Italian recipes, my quantities are approximate. The soup is designed to be eaten at once- any soup with pasta is not suitable to be eaten the next day. The amount below makes three good serves.
2 -3 large garlic cloves, chopped finely
one stem fresh rosemary, leaves stripped, finely chopped
4-6 anchovy fillets
one dried chilli, finely chopped
a generous glug of EV olive oil
cooked chick peas- around two cups ( if using canned chick peas, drain off well and rinse off that awful preserving liquid)
one vegetable stock cube with water or home-made stock, vegetable or chicken.
Fresh pasta offcuts/maltagliati
Italian parsley, finely chopped
black pepper to taste
grated Parmigiano to serve
Using a heavy based saucepan, add the oil to the pan and gently fry off the soffritto, the garlic, anchovy, chilli, and rosemary, pressing the anchovies to a paste as you go.
Add the chickpeas and stock to cover (or water and stockcube). Bring slowly to the boil, then add the pasta pieces. Fresh pasta should cook in two minutes- if the pasta has been left overnight, allow a little longer. Taste as you go. Season with black pepper. Serve with ample parmesan cheese.
Midst all the opulent and overly ornate works of art from the Baroque period, hangs a modest but well-known painting, Il Mangiafagioli, by Annibale Carracci (1560-1609), depicting a quotidian scene, a peasant sitting down to a simple lunch of bean soup, onions, bread, a vegetable pie and a jug of red wine. The Beaneater is as Florentine as Brunelleschi’s dome, given that the Florentines were often called by the taunt, ‘beaneaters,’ especially in bygone days.
The painting captures that moment when ‘the peasant is just raising a spoonful of beans to his lips, only to stop, surprised, by the intrusion of the viewer’, and in one sense, it is remarkably like a modern photo, a snapshot of a working class scene. At the same time, the table setting could be the work of an early food stylist. In modern times, food stylists bombard our senses and shape our taste from every media quarter. Note the crisp white linen and the well composed meal, the wine on the table and the strategically placed bread. You would expect to see a rustic wooden table in this naturalistic vignette, something that the modern food stylist would prefer too. (Have wooden planks used as food styling props become clichéd yet and why is good linen shunned in the modern world?) This bean eating peasant has a fine knife and glassware, a generous jug of wine and serve of bread. Perhaps he is an upwardly mobile peasant of the 1590s about to become a member of the white meat-eating class, despite the dirt under his nails.
Interestingly, up until modern times, beans were regarded as peasant food,
‘Social codes in Baroque Italy extended as far as to food. According to contemporary thinkers, foodstuffs like beans and onions, which are dark in color and grow low to the ground, were suitable only for similarly lowly consumers, like peasants.¹
If this Beaneater’s repast were placed before me today, I would be overjoyed and would probably pay dearly for it too, as I once did, at the delightful restaurant, Il Pozzo, in Monteriggione, Tuscany, where a bowl of bean filled Ribollita, served with a side of raw onions and good Tuscan bread cost me a large wad of lire. Other than the price, the meal hardly differed from the one depicted in Carracci’s painting of 1590. Things don’t change much over the centuries in Italy, a conservative country, particularly when it comes to food, recipes and styling.
This modern-day beaneater, Mr Tranquillo, was bribed with a bottle of Yering Sangiovese 2010, to pose for this ‘painting’. A bowl of bean soup, good bread and a glass of wine is a lunchtime reward for hard work.
How to cook dried white beans and eat well for one dollar.
This recipe will give you enough cooked beans for a very large soup for a crowd or enough to divide and freeze for later soups or dips.
500g dried cannellini beans
2-3 cloves garlic, peeled but whole
4-5 sage leaves, and/or a small branch of rosemary.
60 ml extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra to serve
2 teaspoons or more of salt
Place the beans in a very large bowl with plenty of cold water. Leave to soak for at least 8 hours or overnight.
Drain the beans and place in a heavy-based saucepan or cast iron pot with the garlic, herbs, olive oil and 2.5 litres of water.
Bring to a simmer on the lowest heat setting and cook, covered, very gently until the beans are tender. Do not add salt and do not boil. Salt hardens beans and prevents them from softening and boiling splits the beans.
Remove any scum that rises to the top of the water. When the beans are soft and the cooking water is creamy, add the salt and some freshly ground pepper towards the end of the cooking. Test and adjust seasoning. Depending on the age of the beans, this could take two or more hours with slow cooking.
Use the beans to make a simple cannellini bean soup. Start with a soffritto of finely chopped onion, carrot and celery cooked gently in olive oil, then when softened, add some vegetable stock and cook for 10 minutes. Add the cooked beans and creamy cooking water. Heat for a further 5 minutes, taste and season. Consider pureeing half the mixture with a stick blender and return the puree to the pot. Serve in a deep bowl over grilled slightly stale sourdough bread and drizzle some good oil on top.
Every winter solstice, I am drawn to dark looking foods. One year it was squid ink pasta, followed by an eggplant dish. Sometimes, we have a pint of Guinness. On one particular occasion, an old friend, Brian, arrived dressed for the occasion, his cheeks smeared with charcoal, a crooked stick in hand, and wandered around my kitchen muttering Celtic chants. He then placed a wooden box of dried oak leaves on the table, a box of spells perhaps.
This year’s Solstice offering is a traditional mushroom soup. I only make this soup when my favourite green grocery sells discounted bags of mushrooms that have dark gills. White coloured mushrooms are rather insipid in flavour. I have add a handful of dried porcini to boost the taste of the dark woods.
First make a good rich vegetable stock. The smaller you cut the vegetables in a veggie stock, the more they will sweat off flavour. Also use the mushroom stems in your stock.
Crema di funghi e porcini, Cream of mushroom and porcini soup
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
50g of butter
1 potato, diced
500g sliced mushrooms, preferably with darker gills.
1 litre vegetable stock
15 g dried porcini mushrooms
a handful of fresh thyme leaves
1/2 cup of cream, or more
1 tablespoon or more, dry sherry
some sour cream or crème fraîche to serve
black pepper and salt
finely chopped parsley to serve
Soak the porcini mushrooms in some of the hot stock. Leave for 20 minutes, then remove porcini and strain the liquid through a muslin cloth. Save the soaking liquid.
Add butter to a heavy based saucepan or soup pot, add the onions and cook gently until softened but not coloured. Add the garlic and toss through briefly, then add the sliced mushrooms and chopped porcini. Toss around for a few minutes until the mushrooms wilt and reduce, then add the diced potato, thyme, stock and reserved porcini liquid.
Simmer gently for 30 minutes or until the potatoes are soft, then blend with a stick blender until very smooth. Add the cream, warm through, then add freshly ground pepper, a little salt, and the sherry. Taste and check for seasoning and sherry.
Serve with a little crème fraîche or sour cream and parsley and some good bread.