Pasta Fortunata. Pasta of the Week.

It was a lucky day in the garden, coinciding with a lucky find in the fridge that led to the naming of this rich winter dish, Pasta Fortunata. The cavolo nero, a winter loving vegetable, had finally produced enough young tender branches for me to gather, while in the fridge loitered a tasty nugget of soft and runny Taleggio cheese left over from another dish. These two ingredients are a match made in pasta heaven.

Cavolo nero, Tuscan kale, black kale, braschetta, this wonderful winter vegetable goes by many names.

Cavolo Nero often goes by the name Tuscan Kale or Black Kale in Australia, while in Italy it’s sometimes called Braschetta. I grow this ‘prince of darkness’ in my vegetable patch- it seems to prefer the cold chill of winter mornings to develop well- summertime’s cavolo nero is often prone to attack by white cabbage moth and doesn’t taste as crisp. I have used young leaves in this recipe, requiring only a quick chop. If you buy it, you will need to strip the leaves from the stalk to cook it, as the commercial stems are much longer, older and harder.

Molisana Rotelle. Just for big kids.

This is a rich winter dish, not really conveyed well by my photos. At the base lies a little puddle of tasty sauce while the Taleggio cheese is added right at the end of cooking. Some melts through the dish, while some lucky lumps remain hidden under the leaves and pasta. This week I’ve used Molisana’s Rotelle pasta- little wheels, a purchase influenced by young Chef Daisy, who was attracted to the shape. It requires a little more cooking time than the suggested 7 minutes on the packet, given its thickness. Any pasta corta, short and chunky shape, would work well here. 

This week’s Pasta della Settimana recipe – Rotelle con Cavolo Nero e Taleggio, or Pasta Rotelle pasta with Tuscan kale and Taleggio. (for 2 lunchtime serves). Reduce the amount of pasta if serving as a first course.

  • 180- 200 gr Rotelle pasta or other short pasta shape
  • 20 gr EV olive oil
  • 1 clove of garlic, finely sliced
  • a little white wine
  • 125 gr  cavolo nero, sliced.
  • 70 gr Taleggio cheese
  • 10 gr Pecorino Romano
  • salt
  • white pepper to taste

Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil then add the leaves to the pot. If the leaves a long and large, strip them from the inner hard stem before chopping and cooking. Cook for around 8 minutes.

Add the pasta to the same pot and cook for the time indicated on the pasta packet.

Meanwhile, grate the Pecorino, and roughly chop the Taleggio into chunks. In a wide frying pan such as a non stick wok, heat the olive oil and then add the garlic. Lift out the cooked leaves and pasta and add to this pan. There will be some water still on the pasta and leaves- this adds to the sauce. Add a slurp of white wine, then toss the ingredients about to heat on high. Add a little extra olive oil and cooking water if all the sauce has evaporated. Add the grated Pecorino, some grinds of white pepper then toss through the Taleggio and plate at once, before all the Taleggio completely vanishes.

Linguini with Mussels and Wild Fennel

My pursuit of the best dried pasta continues. In my last post in this series, Pasta della Settimana, I mentioned the importance of bronze dies in the manufacturing process. This method of extrusion has a distinct effect on the taste as well as on the ability of the cooked pasta to hold sauce. Compared to stainless steel or teflon dies, pasta made in this way has a rougher surface and an improved taste. The words ‘Trifilatura al Bronzo‘ is  a label used on retail packages to indicate this production method.

While trying to keep to a budget, bearing in mind that a weekly pasta meal is often considered a cheap option for many families, especially those with hungry teenagers, I shall keep my various pasta recommendations to under AU$5 per 500 g packet, an arbitrary line in the sand. There are many cheaper alternatives around and some are very good. You need to taste a few different varieties to distinguish the difference. It seems a crying shame to make a lovely slow cooked and expensive beef ragu, or an indulgent seafood marinara sauce, only to plonk it on the top of some tasteless industrial pasta.  So this week, my pasta brand is heading up a notch in price to AU$4.75 for a 500 g packet. The Gentile brand of pasta comes highly recommended by my helpful friend at the Mediterranean Wholesalers, a bloke who doesn’t mind a chat about food, travel and recipes. Gentile pasta is made in Gragnano, a commune famous for pasta making, located between the Amalfi coast and Naples, in Campania, Italia.

Gentile pasta from Gragnano.

“Gragnano’s main street was laid out expressly to capture the mountain breeze mixed with sea air back when pasta makers hung spaghetti on drying rods like laundry. More recently heaters are used to dry the pasta at low temperatures (approximately 122 degrees Fahrenheit) for two days and it is shaped with bronze to give it a rough texture, producing a pasta with nuttier aroma and chewier mouth feel.” ¹

The Orecchiette Napoltiane made by Gentile di Gragnano is quite different in shape from that of Puglia.

The history of pasta manufacture in Gragnano makes interesting reading in itself, and there are a few short films set in the various pasta factories of Gragnano, the better ones noted below. Italian online magazines also love to list their top 10 brands of manufactured pasta: Gentile pasta often features in the top 5 artigianale paste, after Masciarelli and Felicetti and Pastificio dei Campi. The first two brands are available in Melbourne but at a price!

Mise en place: Gentile pasta, wild fenel and chilli.

My recipe for Pasta of the Week uses Gentile Linguine. Of course you can use any other linguine that comes your way. I am enjoying working through Gentile’s range and can’t wait to try their famous Fusilli, the flagship of Gentile’s production, made by workers who roll up each noodle with a knitting needle below their forearms, giving it a helical shape which is then made even more appealing by the diversity of each individual fusillo.

Linguini con Cozze e Finocchietto, Linguini with Mussels and Wild Fennel Fronds. Ingredients for 2 people.

  • 200 g Gentile ( or other brand) Linguini
  • 1/2 kilo of fresh mussels, de-bearded and cleaned
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 finely chopped fresh chilli
  • 2 tablespoons EV olive oil
  • a dash or two of white wine
  • some grinds of white pepper
  • 2 branches of wild fennel.

Method. In a wide and deep frying pan, such as a non- stick wok, add one tablespoon of olive oil, one peeled garlic clove, and a slurp or two of dry white wine. Add the cleaned mussels and cover with a lid, heating on medium until the mussels open. Take out the mussels and reduce the liquid a little. Strain the liquid into a small jug, leaving behind the grit.

Remove the mussels from their shells, leaving two in the shells for decoration. Chop the mussel meat but not too finely. Depending on the size of your mussels, aim to chop each one into quarters.

Cook the pasta in a pot of salted boiling water, but only cook for half of the suggested time.

In the wide frying pan used previously, heat 1 tablespoon of EV olive oil, then add one finely chopped garlic and chilli, being careful not to overcook them. Immediately scoop out the pasta from the pot, and add to the pan. Don’t worry about the water clinging to the strands- this adds to the sauce. Now add some of reserved mussel juice and stir well. The pasta needs to cook for another five minutes in this way, a little like making a risotto. Add more mussel juice and also some of the starchy pasta cooking water. After five minutes, the pasta should be cooked to al dente and some rich sauce will have formed. Test the pasta for doneness. Add the chopped mussel meat and the chopped wild fennel fronds, to the pasta, along with a few grinds of white pepper. Toss gently. Serve, adding the reserved mussels in the shell for decoration along with some more fennel fronds. Mmmm Bellissimo.

Pranzo per due.

Notes.

¹ Gragnano wiki

I am indebted to a recipe found on Speck and the City,  but have made various changes along the way. This site is rather more adventurous than most Italian cooking sites and worth a good look.

The following little videos are set around Gragnano. One with George Depardieu visiting the Gentile pasta factory with some very annoying French dubbing over the Italian. Turn the sound off and enjoy watching George and the Fusillare. The second shows some fascinating ancient mills of Gragnano. I know where I’m off to on my next trip to Italy.

A Visit to Testaccio, Rome

Testaccio in ancient times was the centre of trade along the Tevere, and in the centre of this suburb stands Testaccio Hill, which is made up entirely of broken clay amphorae or vessels, a kind of Roman midden pile, providing archeological evidence of ancient everyday Roman life. I would love to go digging in that pile of remains, a highly unlikely prospect. In the meantime, I went digging for culinary treasure at the Testaccio market, a venue often heralded as one of Rome’s food havens.

On the way to Testaccio Market
Testaccio, a Roman working class suburb with great bars and restaurants. Gentrification here we come. Just like Brunswick, Melbourne, complete with hipsters too.

Testaccio is a plain looking working class suburb that is on the turn. The bars and restaurants look more appealing than many of those located in the tourist traps around Rome, though they are being discovered and some are beginning to blandify their offerings to suit small tour groups run by American food bloggers. In one such establishment, Flavio Al Velavevodetto, I had the best Carciofi alla Giudìa, that classic Roman Jewish dish of deep-fried artichoke, and a rather insipid Pasta e Ceci, redeemed only by the cute bottle of their own freshly pressed olive oil, which went straight into my handbag. The restaurant is carved into Monte Testaccio and you can view amphorae shards in the hill through carved out arches in the rear wall.  Perhaps this is a worthy reason to visit in itself.

The best of Rome’s Carciofi alla Giudea at Flavio Al Velavevodetto
Not like Nonna used to make. Pasta e Ceci at Flavio Al Velavevodetto

The Testaccio market building is modern, fairly ugly, and not particularly appealing. However, If you have an apartment in centro and are after fresh ingredients, this is the spot to shop. Other offerings include an outdoor cafe, a shop touting a list of so-called Strit Fud snacks, a concept I still find jarring in the Italian context, and a wonderful little corner bar offering a tall glass of Prosecco at any time in the morning for €2

Prosecco for breakfast at Testaccio Market.

 

I was intrigued by the padrone of the prosciutto shop, who hand cut his special cured meats. A small crowd gathered as he carefully shaved off thin slices of Cinta Senese, that Tuscan pig with its own DOP.

Hand cut Prosciutto
The art of hand cutting prosciutto
Cinta Senese

While the produce is fresh and appealing, the market was, for me, underwhelming. We needed that glass of Prosecco.

Rome you seduce me

and begging me to return

Obsessed, I obey.

 

For Unlikely, at WordPress and Ronovan’s weekly Haiku

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.

 

Gnocchetti Sardi. Pasta of the week number 2.

The pasta variety, Gnocchetti Sardi, or little Sardinian gnocchi, is a small ridged pasta around two centimetres long. It’s a great shape to use when you want an amalgam of pasta, vegetables and protein, blending nicely into one comforting bowl.

Close up of Gnocchetti Sardi or Malloreddus

Malloreddus, the Sardinian name for these little gnocchi shapes, means small calves. They have been prepared since ancient times, often for festivals and weddings and are usually combined with sausage, or meat and saffron. Traditionally they were made from semolina flour and water and hand rolled into long strips of dough, then shaped into cubes and crushed against a straw basket (a ciuliri or straw sieve) to make the textured stripes. They were meant to resemble vitellini, ( the Italian translation of Malloreddus ) meaning small calves. As you can see in the photo above, they do look a lot like gnocchi, the striped pattern designed to hold a good sauce

This vegetarian dish combines shredded silverbeet (chard) with a little gorgonzola dolce, thin cream and toasted walnuts to create a wholesome dish. The recipe is deliberately imprecise. Combine the ingredients listed to suit your taste, keeping a fine balance as you go. This dish is an Almost Italian original and one inspired by the return of chard to my garden.

Gnocchetti Sardi con Bietola, Gorgonzola e Noci/ Sardinian gnocchi with Silverbeet, Gorgonzola and Walnuts

Ingredients in sequence of use.

  • 100 gr pasta Gnocchetti Sardi per person
  • salt
  • EV olive oil
  • one garlic clove
  • some small silverbeet leaves, finely shredded
  • a small chunk of gorgonzola dolce, {DOP is you can find it/flash but so good}
  • some fresh walnuts, toasted in oven, then chopped into small pieces.
  • pouring cream
  • ground black pepper
  • Parmigiano cheese shavings for serving, optional.

Cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water until al dente. Meanwhile in a wide and deep frying pan, heat the olive oil and gently saute the garlic clove. Remove the clove after it has flavoured the oil. Add the shredded silverbeet and toss around for a minute or so until wilted. Tear the gorgonzola into small clumps and add to the pan. As it begins to melt, add some pouring cream to the pan and a few grinds of black pepper. Don’t swamp the dish with cream. Reduce the cream and cheese mixture a little. When the pasta is ready, drain it then add to the pan, tossing through the sauce. Add the nuts, toss once more. Serve with shaved parmigiano.

About draining pasta. I rarely drain pasta in a colander over a sink, preferring to keep a small amount of residual pasta water to add to the secondary cooking which happens in a deep wide frying pan. With long pasta shapes, I lift them from the boiling pot to the pan with tongs or a claw pasta lifter: with short shapes I scoop them out with a wire sieve and shake a little. In this way, a small amount of the starchy, salty water helps to loosen the sauce.

Last weeks pasta of the week: Ditalini con Cacio e Uova

Fig Semifreddo, a Magic Dessert.

I have a backlog of good recipes to share with you, dear reader, as I’ve been rather quiet on that front for a while. Thanks to a flurry of small luncheons and dinner parties, I was compelled to lift my game and search out dishes that might even excite my own jaded appetite. In sharing them with you, I also benefit by adding them to a safe place for the future, my recipe file. Most of these new recipes involve seasonal fruits, especially figs.

The fig season has given us one month of sweet eating. Every day I take an old hand-woven basket down to the orchard and carefully select a few ripe specimens. They continue to ripen on the bench for another day, but the window of opportunity passes quickly. Other than scoffing them down with some soft gorgonzola dolce and toasted walnuts, I’ve been hunting and collecting the best fig recipes for desserts, jams and sweet/savoury salads. 

We have two varieties in our garden- the commonly grown Brown Turkey fig and the green-skinned White Adriatic fig, sometimes called the strawberry jam fig, in reference to its sweet jelly like red flesh, excellent flavour and flesh quality. Both have their place, although I have a preference for the Adriatics. The leaves make great serving platters, or are useful for covering up various body parts or embarrassments. They are easy to grow, don’t need pollinating or pruning, but prefer a non windy site and plenty of water in late Spring and Summer. If you have room, I recommend that you plant one, if only for the thrill of making figgy desserts.

Fig semifreddo with poached figs and amaretti biscuit.

I’ve only recently discovered the joys of making semifreddo since the demise of my ancient ice cream maker. I might just stick with this faster and easier concoction in the future. The following recipe is a beauty, especially for those who are blessed with a productive fig tree as well as lots of home laid eggs.

Semifreddo di Fichi /Fig Semifreddo

Ingredients

350 g fresh figs
125 g brown sugar
7 egg yolks
100 g caster sugar
350 ml whipping cream
3 tsp fresh lemon juice

Method

  • Wash the figs, remove the stems (keep the skin on) and finely dice. Place them in a non-stick pan on a high heat, stirring constantly. After a few minutes add the brown sugar. Reduce the heat to a low simmer and allow the figs and brown sugar to caramelise for around 20 minutes until you have a jam-like consistency.
  • Stir in the lemon juice and remove the pan from the heat to cool to room temperature. Once cooled, add the 50 ml of cream and gently work it into the jam.
  • In a stand mixer with whisk attachment, whip the egg yolks on high for 10-15 minutes until they triple in volume. Add the caster sugar slowly, ensuring it is well mixed with the eggs. The mixture should be quite thick.
  • In a clean bowl, whip the rest of the cream to soft peaks. Then slowly fold the cream into the egg mixture, being careful not to lose the volume.
  • Gently fold the fig jam into the cream.
  • Place a large sheet of cling wrap over a plastic or metal container. I used a bread loaf tin, measuring 24cm L by 11 cm W and 10 cm D. Pour the cream into the container, filling to the top, leaving the cling wrap to hang outside each side. Cover well with tin foil and place in the freezer for at least 12 hours. You can make this dessert a day or so ahead.
  • About 10-15 minutes before serving, take the tin out of the freezer and flip it upside down onto a long tray before slicing it.

Adapted from a recipe found on Mondo Mulia

Make a compote of lightly poached figs. Remove the figs after a few minutes of poaching then reduce the sauce then strain it. Serve with the semifreddo.

Poaching liquid for figs.

  • 2 cups water
  • ¼ cup honey
  • 2 tablespoons brown or granulated sugar
  • ½ vanilla bean, split lengthwise and seeded (optional)
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 8 or so figs

Further reading on figs here and here.

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.

Sicilian Christmas Sweet Balls.

Last year I pulled the plug on Christmas as I felt that some traditions had run their course, that our traditions needed to be rewritten. Now, as I look back on my 2016 December posts, my outlook didn’t deter me from baking some interesting Christmas sweets. Last year’s Sicilian biscotti were winners for me and mine: I gave away many little parcels of these treats. A few of my readers made these last year, with variations on the theme too, using different fruits and methods.

The first recipe includes dried sour cherries. By all means, use whatever dried fruit you have on hand, remembering to chop or cut it first. This year, I reduced the size of the balls a little, although my photos still show them looking rather large! The recipe produces around 30.

Ready to cook.

Amaretti di Cioccolato e Ciliegia/  Chocolate, cherry and almond biscuits

  • 250 g finely ground almonds
  • 120 g caster sugar
  • 50 g dark ( 70%) chocolate, grated
  • 60 g dried sour cherries, chopped
  • finely grated zest of 1 lemon
  • 2 extra-large egg whites, ( 700) or three medium
  • a pinch of salt
  • 30 g icing/confectioners’ sugar

Preheat the oven to 160 c.

Mix the almonds, sugar, chocolate, cherries and lemon zest together. Whisk the egg whites until firm and fold it into the almond mixture with the salt. Mix well. The mixture should be damp. If you have used two egg whites and feel that the mixture needs a bit more moisture, beat another until stiff and add it to the mixture.

Place the icing sugar in a bowl. Roll the mixture into small 3cm balls, then toss them into the icing sugar to coat well. Place them on paper lined baking sheets.

Bake until they have a golden tinge, about 15 minutes. Cool on a wire rack. Makes around 30 balls. 

The other Sicilian Christmas sweets made were almond balls from Agrigento. They fill the room with the heady aroma of spice and honey as they cook. Like the almond and cherry balls, they are dusted in icing sugar before they are cooked. This removes the annoying dusting of sugar snow on your face and clothing when popping these straight into your mouth.

Fior di Mandorle.  Almond pastries with honey and spice

  • 200 g freshly ground almonds or almond meal
  • 50 g/3 tablespoons of fragrant clear honey
  • 100 g caster sugar
  • grated zest of  1 small organic orange
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon allspice
  • 1  large, or two very small beaten egg whites
  • 1 teaspoon orange liquor such as Cointreau, or vanilla`
  • icing/confectioners sugar for coating

Preheat the oven to 150c.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Mix all the ingredients together and mix well till the dough is moist. Your hands are the best tools for this task.

Shape into smooth little cakes around 3 cm in diameter.  Roll in icing sugar then place onto a baking paper lined baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes.

Cool on a wire rack. Makes around 20.

Dear friends and readers, did you make these sweets last December? What lovely dried fruits did you substitute? I am thinking that chopped fig might go well in the first recipe.

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