Same Same but Different is a wonderful Balinese-English expression that was devised many years ago by a streetwise Balinese salesperson. It spread quickly among the shopkeepers and Mr T still wears his 10 year old Same Same But Different T shirt which always cracks me up. Same same on the front, But Different on the back. I love this expression: it captures the humour and inventiveness of the Balinese people and their ingenuity at devising new ways to lure a few dollars from the mindless tourist.
I often think about this crazy expression when imagining ways to use eggplants. Our usual standby dish is eggplant parmigiana, that well loved classic with an interesting culinary history. ¹ Involtini di Melanzane, or eggplant rolls, require very similar ingredients to the former classic, and yet the dish seems much lighter and more interesting. Same same but different.
The following recipe is by Karen Martini. The quick process of flouring and egging the eggplant slices before frying prevents them from absorbing too much olive oil, resulting in a much lighter dish. The original recipe uses a simple tomato passata for the sauce. I found this too bland. A more flavoursome dish results from making a garlic and oregano laced tomato ragù, but if you are in a hurry, go for the bottled passata.
Melanzane Involtini. – eggplant rolls ( serves 4 as a main, 6 as a starter)
2 large eggplants
75g plain flour
olive oil, for frying
salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons currants, soaked in red-wine vinegar for 5 minutes, then drained
40g grated parmesan
200g mozzarella, cut into 1cm thick sticks ( or grated)
extra virgin olive oil
500ml tomato passata ( 2 cups) ( see notes above)
3 sprigs flat-leaf parsley
50g pine nuts
3 tablespoons chunky fresh breadcrumbs
In a small bowl, lightly beat 2 large eggs with 1 tablespoon of water. Peel the eggplants to create a striped effect, then cut lengthways into 1 cm thick slices. Dust the eggplant slices with flour, then dip into egg wash. Heat olive oil in a large heavy based frying pan over high heat. Cook eggplant slices for 1-2 minutes on each side until golden. Drain well on kitchen paper.
In a medium bowl, mix the ricotta with remaining egg. Season with salt and pepper. add the drained currants and half the parmesan and stir to combine. Spoon about 1 tablespoon of this mixture onto each eggplant slice. Add a little mozzarella and roll up tightly.
Preheat oven to 170ºC. Brush the base of a large ovenproof dish with 1 tablespoon of EV olive oil. Spread half the tomato passata or ragù in base of dish. Place the eggplant rolls on the sauce, seam side down, so they don’t unroll. Drizzle with remaining oil, spoon over the remaining sauce and sprinkle with parmesan.
Combine the chopped parsley, pine nuts and breadcrumbs in a small bowl. Sprinkle over the top. Cover with foil and bake for 25 minutes. Remove foil and bake for a further 10 minutes or until cheese is melted. and top golden.
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.
Today is un giorno festivo according to the bus timetable, which simply means it’s Sunday, a holiday, a holy day, as opposed to all the other working days of the week. I’ve arrived in Castellina in Chianti, a small village 15 kilometres from Siena, after a slow but pleasant bus trip through rolling Tuscan hills dotted with small historic settlements with names that resonate more loudly than they should: Ficareto, Colombaio, Quercegrossa, Croce Fiorentina, San Leonino. I mentally translate every printed word that flashes by: names of villages and rivers, traffic directions and road signs, as figs and doves, large oak trees and Florentine crosses, saints, wells and fountains overload my thinking. This habit is mentally exhausting. Last night’s drift of snow left no visible sign in these hills, but it’s still cold and bleak. I’m wearing a thick brown coat- one that I purchased from the bi – weekly market near the medieval wall just outside the centro storico in Siena. It’s my bag lady coat, coarse and graceless, but warm. I feel like an outsider, an imposter, and terribly lonely: this coat doesn’t help. I’ll blame the coat for my sense of estrangement, given that all the Senese look so elegant in their long, fur trimmed woolen coats, not unlike those well- behaved citizens in a medieval Ambrogio Lorenzetti fresco. Not to mention the local taste for expensive, narrow, fine leather or reptile skin shoes, elegant and totally impractical, which don’t fit my broad Australian feet. The stall holders at the Sunday market in Castellina in Chianti are now packing up: I’ve arrived too late to pick up a little antique hand worked pillow case or vintage ceramic plate. The village looks deserted and uninviting. I’m not sure why I came, or where to go, not having done much research before making this lone journey. A church bell chimes in the distance signalling that it’s already past one pm, a reminder to the secular that it’s time to eat. Distant church bells can be comforting or dispiriting, arousing a sense of belonging or sadness. Today’s bells ring melancholy. A sense of cognitive dissonance overcomes me: it seems that the more I learn this language and bathe in the familiarity of Italian sounds, the less certain I feel about my place here. The empty streets loudly announce that everyone else is already seated at a table, either in a family home or warm restaurant, coats now hanging on pegs by the front door, primo piatto about to be served, a bottle of Chianti Classico proffered, as loud and excitable conversation fills the room.The choice on the menu won’t be novel or foreign: Italians are far more comfortable with regional food, or even more precisely, the food of their paese, the local village or district, food that is cooked simply and according to tradition. That’s what is so appealing about Italian food. At times, I’ll admit, Italian regional cuisine can become stubbornly insular and unbending too. Campanilismo, a word derived from campanile, the village church bell,suggests a rigid adherence to one’s local food, method of cooking, ingredients, dialect and ways of doing things: it’s about local pride. The bell tolls for many reasons.
I’m feeling anxious now and walk more desperately. The town is much smaller than I anticipated. If I’m not seated at a table by 1.15, I may miss out on lunch altogether. I’m looking for a small restaurant or trattoria, one that isn’t too well patronised by noisy extended families in elegant clothes, having attended, or pretending to have attended, church. Pretending to attend church is an art form in Italy, a performance that I greatly admire. You don your Sunday best, make a brief appearance at the church with the family, double or triple kiss your friends at the front steps, enter and sit down for a bit, pop out the front for a smoke (male), or chat loudly with your friends in the mid to rear rows (female), while ignoring most of the action at the front altar. The reverberating monotone of the priest echoing around the walls, ‘Santo, Santo, Santo il Signore Dio dell’universo. I cieli e la terra sono pieni della tua gloria’, produces a ready response from the front two rows of pews. High pitched, croaky voices pray in unison, the pious and the permed: small boned and ancient women kneel, rosaried and devout, as they prepare for their future in paradiso.
I peer through the window of a small and very plain looking trattoria and see a tangle of bright yellow pasta lying on a wooden bench, liberally dusted with flour. A plump middle aged woman in a plastic cap adds more to the pile- pasta freshly rolled and cut for today’s lunch. The menu board says Tagliatelle al Burro eSalvia. ( tagliatelle with butter and sage). I don’t read any further, I don’t need to know what’s on offer for the piatto secondo. I walk straight in.
When the eggs are plentiful and spring vegetables and herbs announce their readiness to be picked before bolting to heaven, I think back to that simple meal in Castellina in Chianti. It was elegant yet comforting, it’s success arising from restraint. Freshly made egg pasta is a joy to make and consume soon after. It requires only 2 ingredients: eggs and flour, along with a bit of kneading, resting, rolling and cutting and that’s all. No salt, no oil, no sourdough starter, no colours, no heavy artisan type flours, no chia seeds and no fuss. The sauce should gently coat the strands. Ideally, you want the fresh eggs to sing, their golden yolks colouring the mixture. At this time of the year, fresh pasta is almost saffron in colour, the eggs are so good. In the case of Tagliatelle with Butter and Sage, the sauce comes from lightly browned butter in which you crisp a few sage leaves. You could add a grating of nutmeg. It is served with grated parmigiano. Authenticity, although a fraught concept, requires you to stick, as much as possible, to the traditions of a country’s cuisine, if you have the ingredients on hand to do so. Once you start fiddling with a recipe, expect the results to speak a different language. Restrained is a good word to describe the elegance of Italian food. I hear those bells ringing. Time to make fresh pasta.
One of the classic ways of conserving seasonal food, especially in rural Italy, is to preserve food in jars ‘sott’ olio’ or under oil. Usually vegetables, such as peppers, artichokes, eggplant and mushrooms, are partially cooked, grilled or brined beforehand, then covered completely in oil. The oil excludes air and acts as a seal against deterioration. The shelf life of these country treasures is shorter than other foods preserved using the bottling or ‘canning’ method, and once opened, they should be stored in the fridge.
One of the most enticing treats done in this way is anchovies under oil. I have vivid memories of the first time I tried anchovies conserved in this way. It was February 1993 and I was living in Siena for a month to attend a language course in Italian at the Scuola di Dante Alighieri per Stranieri, a short course wedged between my first and second year Italian studies at university. The course was demanding, with daily classes from 8 am to 1 pm, with a short coffee break in between. This left the afternoon free to explore the countryside or to wander the streets of Siena before returning home for a wine, a snack and more homework. One lunchtime, a fellow student and his wife invited me to lunch- he was, like me, an older student and was studying Italian to enhance his wine writing career. He recommended a little osteria, a simple place, with an appealing array of antipasti dishes displayed at the front counter. And there they were, sitting neatly in a rectangular glass dish, acciughesott’olio, pink tender fillets of anchovy glistening under golden olive oil, carpeted above in finely chopped parsley. I ordered a large scoop, along with some other bits and pieces and a panino. Anchovies have never been the same for me since that day. When in Italy, I always order a small container of acciughesott’olio from an alimentari: they taste nothing like the jarred or tinned variety.
Last Wednesday as I was trawling the fish market at Preston, a big shiny pile of fresh anchovies caught my eye. I could barely contain my excitement, largely because in all the years I’ve been frequenting fish markets around Melbourne, I’ve never seen them offered for sale. I bought one kilo, raced back home and spent the next hour, with some help from Mr T, de-heading and gutting hundreds of these tiny fish: no bigger than my little finger, this was a real labour of love, the anticipation of eating the finished product inspiring me to gut neatly and well. The following recipe is for those who might come across fresh anchovies in their travels and who don’t mind some tedious gutting. The gutting becomes quite easy once you get a rhythm going. Once gutted, they are easy to brine and conserve. Don’t confuse fresh anchovies with sardines- they are two quite distinct species: anchovies are much smaller and look and taste completely different.
Fresh anchovies preserved under oil. Acciughe sott’olio.
1 kilo fresh anchovies
red wine vinegar
EV olive oil.
First of all, wash the fish a few times in a large colander to remove some of the blood. Then start the de-heading and gutting process, well armed with a strong wooden cutting board and newspaper for the scraps ( perfectly fine sent to the compost heap). As you cut off head, push down against the board and drag it away from the body- you’ll find that the guts come out with the head in one simple movement. If the anchovy separates into two parts, pull out the backbone: if not, leave it there, to be removed later.
Once prepared, lay in a glass or ceramic container – I used a large earthenware gratin dish. Liberally sprinkle with course salt, lifting the little fillets through the salt, then arrange them neatly in the dish. How much salt? Quanto basta, as they say in Italian recipes, q.b. for short, which means as much as you think they need. Cover with red wine vinegar. Cover the dish, and put it in the fridge for 24 hours.
The next day, sterilise two medium sized jars for the anchovies. Drain the brine from the fish, remove their fine backbones, which will pull out very easily, then pop into jars, layering them with a little finely chopped garlic and some oregano if you wish. Don’t overdo the extra flavours as they may come to overwhelm the fish over time. Fill the jars with olive oil, knock the jars against the bench a few times to remove air-pockets, then top up with more oil as needed. The contents must be covered. Put on lids tightly then store in the fridge. Leave for around five days before eating. As olive oil turns cloudy when cold, remove the anchovies a few minutes before serving and place in a small bowl. The oil with clear in no time in a warm room.
As the flavoured oil is a component of this antipasto dish, you want to use good tasting oil, but perhaps not a top notch one. I used Cobram Australian Extra Virgin olive oil, a good quality everyday oil and one that tastes quite good too.
Serve as part of an antipasto selection, or simply place them on top of good sourdough bread, along with parsley and black pepper, and eat them when the mood takes you.
The recipe was inspired by a post by Debi who wrote about finding fresh anchovies in Greece, around one year ago. I remember that post well, thinking that I would never see the fresh species land in my local fish market.
April was busier than usual with children on school holidays, beach days, Easter, followed by Anzac Day. I’m rather pleased that May has come around and I can get back to my home kitchen full-time, with some mellow Autumn cooking, interspersed with trips to the library. Anzac day, April 25th, demanded a few biscuits to mark the occasion. It’s a baking tradition in my kitchen as it was in my mother’s until recently. My Anzac biscuits are flat and crispy, the way I like them. I pop them in an old Anzac tin in the hope that they might last a few days. They never do. The Department of Veteran affairs has firm rules about Anzac biscuits. You risk a large fine if you attempt to call them cookies or play with the original recipe, or misappropriate the name in a commercial business. While not patriotic at all, I still believe in the uniquely Australian/New Zealand aspects of this day. Anzac biscuits are so popular with my extended family, I should bake them more often. For flatter, brown and crispy Anzacs, slightly reduce the percentage flour and add more brown sugar.
I whipped up these yeasted buns for Easter this year: unfortunately there was little time to concentrate on feeding a leaven for a sourdough version. This lot had extra fruit and were glazed with quince jelly. Unlike the supermarket versions which can still taste fresh after a week, ( or maybe even a month), these buns are preservative free so they don’t keep for more than a day or two. The left over buns landed in a rich bread and butter pudding.
One vegetable that grows very happily in this awful drought is chilli. They ripen in autumn and will continue to enjoy life in the garden until the first frost arrives. I use a few fresh, but the bulk of the crop is dried and ground into flakes for the year ahead. I also make chilli oil. Small batches are better as the oil can go rancid. This small jar will last a month or so. A nice drizzle for a pizza or crab pasta.
It’s garlic planting time. When you see sprouting garlic around the markets, you know the time is right. I usually plant 300 each year. This basket of 100 is a mixture of my own garlic and some Australian grown garlic from the market. Three separate plantings over May will ensure a staggered pick.
The chooks are pumping again, and suddenly I have far too many eggs. I have sent Mr Tranquillo the recipe, again, for Crème Brûlée, purchased some second-hand shallow terracotta ramekins, and I have also given him a blow torch for caramelising the tops. It’s his favourite dessert so I’m hoping it becomes his signature dish. I really do like it too.
Autumn also sees the return of pasta making in my kitchen. Three eggs and 300 grams of flour, preferable tipo 00, or a mixture of tipo 00 and semola rimacinata, or just plain flour if that’s all you have: no oil, no salt and no other additives, according to Italian nonne. This will make you a truckload of fresh pasta. I fiddled with some parsley leaf pasta in these lasagne sheets. Not worth the effort and such a 90s thing to do.
It’s pastie time again. The filling in these pasties was fairly Cornish- onion, carrot, parsnip, potato. I found this puff pastry hard to digest. The sheets were left over in my fridge. For my next lot, I’ll focus on a good home-made short crust pastry.
There’s always soup in my kitchen. We don’t wait for Autumn or cooler weather to make good soup- we have it all year round. I am passionate about the building of a good soup. My soups are never randomly made. I like colour combinations, creating different flavour bases via a finely chopped soffritto, and seeking pleasing presentations so that you mangiare con gli occhi, or eat with the eyes before tasting the soup. Today, I wanted to paint a monochromatic soup in white and pale green, a contrast to today’s earthy dark rye bread. After building a soffritto of finely chopped garlic, fresh rosemary, a few anchovies and a pinch of ground chilli, I added a pile of cooked cannellini beans, shredded pale green cabbage ( wongbok cabbage which cooks quickly), and a handful of Pantacce pasta. A little grated Parmigiano Reggiano at the table and buon appetito. It’s ready.
Another cold day soup was built with Autumn colours, a typical Ribollita style soup. The soffritto build included onion, carrot, celery, and garlic. Once softened in EV olive oil, I added borlotti beans, more carrot, shredded cavolo nero, and some halved cherry tomatoes. This dense soup was served with a hunk of white sourdough.
A new cake has come into my life. I love flourless cakes that aren’t too cloying. This one has four ingredients ( butter, sugar, walnuts, eggs) and can be whipped up in a few minutes. It is dense, is a great keeper and très French. The recipe for Walnut Cake from Perigord can be found here.
That’s a quick roundup of the kitchen treasure this month. Thanks as always to Sherry, of Sherry’s Pickings, for the link up to In My Kitchen.
The word ‘green’ is associated with more connotations than most other colours, including immaturity, rawness, naivety, pale and sickly looking, envy, and the green environmental and political movement, just to name a few. Perhaps some of these concepts are inadvertently connected? As an offshoot of the green environmental movement, some cooking sites loudly proclaim to be ‘green’, a word that has become synonymous with healthy. A quick perusal of these sites will reveal recipes using all sorts of everyday ingredients that are neither ‘green’ nor healthy. ‘Green’ food, just like that other odd term, superfood, has become another marketing tool. Maybe green is the new lite?
As I suggested in a recent post on eating greens, I am enjoying taking the word back to its literal meaning, given that I have a vast array of garden greens to choose from. I can honestly say that most of the things I eat are unavailable in restaurants. I prefer to eat my own concoctions more than ever and have no time for flashy, restaurant styling or plating. I’m after big flavour, freshness and ease of production. My garden greens go in soups, pastas, risotti: they top pizzas, go in salads and stir fries, while the herbs flavour bland foods or star in their own right.
Growing our own food and eating with the seasons is a fifty year old habit, though I think we’ve become better at it with age and more time. My green stories are not meant to promote a romanticised view of country life. Far from it. It’s a lifestyle choice which comes with a fair amount of dedication and is not for the armchair tree changer, the naive or the time poor. The picture of country life, at least in the Italian context ( this blog does, after all, rely on a certain Italianità for content and inspiration) pictures a nonna making bread and preserves or a nonno making sausages and eating pecorino and fresh fava beans under an olive tree. There will be home pressed olive oil and maybe an outside fireplace to cook alla brace. This is the stereotypical view of Italian country life, a wonderful food marketing myth. The idyllic notions about cucina povera conveniently ignore the laborious and hard life of the peasant. Italian migration, especially after WW2, took place as a result of desperate poverty in Italy. We can forgive the modern-day Italian blogger who pretends, just a little bit, to be connected to the land and the seasons, writing from the comfort of her own modern apartment or suburban home via a trip to the nearby farmers’ market to check what’s in season. These stories make people feel that their food has authenticity, another marketing tool.
It’s not easy being green. It’s hard work living by the seasons, which involves making vast amounts of compost based on the layering of collected manure, grass clippings, oak leaves, and scraps, as well as saving seed, pruning, netting fruit crops, harvesting gluts of food and giving it away or preserving it, watering, mulching, and ensuring that the fences keep out unwanted pests such as rabbits. The food tastes good because it has been nurtured well.
If you are fortunate enough to have any small patch of land that accompanies your abode, grow herbs that suit your climate, plant some silverbeet (chard) in the flower garden- rainbow chard, with its yellow and red stems looks wonderful. Plant an annual crop of cavolo nero for winter soups. These tall dark green plants look statuesque in a garden bed next to lavender. Why not grow some artichokes in an unused corner of the yard? Their silver leaves are as ornamental as any other exotic plant and they grow like weeds. Pop in a row of radish every fortnight and some soft heading lettuce. Tend to them like children and learn what they need. The old cop-out, having a black thumb, is an excuse for not learning about your own environment or the needs of plants. Agitate to save an old growth forest from logging and learn to grow a few greens at the same time.
The two pastas shown throughout this story both rely on the same base soffritto shown in the picture below.
As the spaghettini cooks in the pot of boiling salted water, chop some soffritto ingredients. I like to use anchovy fillets, garlic and dried chilli. Heat a good glug of EV olive oil in a wide and deep frying pan and add this mixture, stirring about to break up the anchovy. Add some greens to the pan- I like to use broccoli Calabrese, a side shooting broccoli that is even finer than broccolini and cooks in a minute, a few young leaves of cavolo nero and some immature zucchini cut into the same shape as the other greens. Toss these about for a few minutes, then add a ladleful or two of the pasta cooking water. Raise the heat to reduce the liquid a little. Once the pasta is al dente, drain it and add it to the pan of greens. Toss about and season with ground pepper. Serve in big bowls and dress with grated Parmigiano or more good oil, or leave it as is.
No quantities are mentioned in the recipe. It’s entirely up to you and what greens you use. This recipe only works because the greens in question were picked 20 minutes beforehand. Herbs work well. Lettuce, chicory, chard, shaved young artichoke- whatever you can find or forage.
Brocollini Calabrese seeds can be bought from Eden seeds. Sow these directly into the ground in April ( or towards the end of Autumn). I pick side shoots every second day.
Sunny brand anchovies come in 750 gr cans. I buy these at Gervasi supermarket in Brunswick, Melbourne. I haven’t seen them anywhere else in my travels. They are very good and last well, packed under oil.
If you grow too many chillies, dry them out and grind them in a spice grinder for the year. You can then decide on your own level of heat. They last in sealed jars forever.
One of my favourite winter pasta dishes is Pizzoccheri della Valtellina. The combination of buckwheat pasta, savoy cabbage or other greens, with fontina cheese and a buttery garlic sauce is so comforting and nourishing on a cold day. I bought some buckwheat flour recently, fully intending to make my own buckwheat tagliatelle but then I heard a little voice whisper, ”Don’t create a rod for your own back.” My home-made version will have to wait. Meanwhile, a timely box of Pizzoccheri turned up in that famous pasta aisle of Melbourne’s Mediterranean wholesaler. Organic, made in Valtellina in Lombardy, and labelled I.G.P ( Indicazione Geografica Protetta), who could resist the real thing.
Recipe for 6 people. Adjust quantities accordingly, but I usually measure around 175g of pasta for 2 people and keep the whole garlic clove.
500 g Pizzoccheri della Valtellina
250 g potatoes peeled and cut into small cubes
200 g Savoy cabbage, silver beet or Cavolo Nero ( I like to mix these for colour and use those that are growing in my garden )
160 g Fontina cheese
160 g grated parmesan
200 g butter
1-2 cloves garlic
Cook the potatoes in a large pot of salted water for 5 minutes. Add the Pizzoccheri pasta and the roughly chopped greens and boil for 12-15 minutes. Meanwhile melt the butter and cook the finely chopped garlic gently. Slice the fontina cheese and grate the parmesan. Heat a large serving plate and your pasta bowls. Once the pasta and vegetables are cooked, strain them and layer into a large serving bowl, along with the cheeses, alternating until the ingredients are used. Pour over the garlic butter and season. Serve.
The cheeses melt once layered through the hot pasta while the garlicky butter adds another tasty layer to the sauce. Simple and sustaining. Fontina cheese is a must in this recipe.
Wander around the little lanes and back streets of the smaller and less touristy villages of Lake Como and you will find some real gems. One perfect but modest osteria can be found in Cernobbio, a village accessed easily by bus or ferry. I prefer the ferry option, not only for the wonderful views of the Palazzi and gardens along the way, but just to hear the ferryman call out the names of the villages en route, “Torno, Moltrasio, Blevio, Cernobbio”, lazily trilling those ‘r’s and the nautical sounds of whistles, ropes and gangway planks landing.
The day we went to Cernobbio, the wind was icy and the ferry was almost empty: we were well rugged up for the day. It was early November and most of the large gardens had closed for the season. Among our fellow travellers was a young chap, honey blond hair perfectly groomed, sporting a mustard coloured scarf carefully arranged over the shoulder of an expensive and conservative blue outfit, tanned ankles bare above sockless and effeminate boating shoes, with a newspaper tucked under one arm. Too affected to embody the insouciance of a Castiglione courtier, la bella figura gone awry. An aimless and idle palazzo owner perhaps? He was the only other passenger to leave the ferry at Cernobbio. The place looked deserted.
We wandered around Cernobbio: it had that empty, out of season look. Although not accustomed to taking coffee at 11 am, it seemed like a sensible thing to do, given the weather. And this decision led to a most wondrous find, the Osteria delBeuc, a small worker’s cooperative and restaurant up a back lane in Cernobbio. This is where all the locals were hiding on that cold November morning. At one large table, a group of older men in sensible jackets were grazing on morning snacks to go with their pre- lunch wines. A few tables away, couples were partaking of coffee but there was a sense of expectation in the air. More people were beginning to arrive. I glanced at the paper sheet listing the menu of the day. The gregarious waiter/front of house/barman advised that I should book immediately as there was only one table left for 12.30. Good advice. I ordered a Spritz and settled in for some more people watching, buoyed by the glowing euphoria that only a Prosecco laced with Campari can produce at such an ungodly but most welcome drinking hour.
By 12.40, the place was packed. The elderly gentlemen reluctantly vacated their morning table and wandered back to the safety of their separate homes, wives and a home cooked meal. The table was then replaced with a large group of hungry young office workers. Smaller tables were occupied by elegantly dressed couples, some accompanied by small, pampered dogs on leads: the place was alive as the enthusiastic waiter theatrically went about his business.
But then, dear reader, you didn’t come all the way with me to Cernobbio to simply ogle the locals, although if you’re a bit like me, you probably enjoy a bit of people watching as you travel through life, inventing scenarios and stories for each one. The food at Osteria del Beuc is well priced and seriously very good. Honest and simple food cooked perfectly. The lunch menu came with prices for one, two or three courses, 9€/ AU$14, 12€/AU18/ €14/AU22, which included a 250 ml carafe of wine per person. Of course I went for the three course option.
For il primo, I had a composed salad of endive, spinach and soft white cheese, beautifully dressed while Mr T had a zucchini frittata. Then came a creamy risotto dish, perfectly cooked, nicely moistened, cooked in red wine, with rosemary and Taleggio cheese, the latter still visible and just beginning to melt. Sadly there is no photo, but if there were, it wouldn’t look great- just a pile of wet white rice on a plain plate. And yet it tasted sensational. The bread supply was generous. A fairly ordinary chocolate mousse followed. This didn’t detract from the overall delight of the meal and the venue: I have come to expect unimaginative desserts in Italy and should remember not to order them, unless there’s a visible nonna on site who may have just baked a homely torta of fruit or nuts.
I have worked on recreating that lovely risotto dish and will continue to refine it. The Cernobbio version retained a lovely creamy white appearance and perhaps used less red wine and a little less rosemary than my version. Every time I make this, my heart flies back to Lake Como. Below is a version but feel free to play with it to suit your palate.
Risotto al Vino Rosso, Rosmarino e Taleggio. Risotto with Vino Rosso, Rosemary and Taleggio.
Ingredients for two smallish serves. Adjust quantities to suit your appetite, bearing in mind that it’s a rich dish and best served with a simple salad before or afterwards.
150 g Carnaroli rice
1/2 red onion, very finely chopped
150 ml good quality red wine ( the one you’ve opened for dinner is best)
350 – 400 ml vegetable stock ( it’s always better to have extra on hand)
20 gr butter
40 gr or more of Taleggio ( substitute Stracchino if on a budget)
40 gr grated Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano or more to taste
a teaspoon of very finely chopped fresh rosemary
salt and white pepper to season
In a small saucepan, warm the vegetable stock and keep it on a low heat. In a separate cast iron casserole, choosing a suitable size for the measure of rice you are using, add the butter and saute the onion gently until soft and pale golden. Add the rice and toast for a minute or two. Then add the red wine and heat, stirring, until it is fully absorbed. From this point, begin to add a ladle of hot stock to the rice and stir through on low to medium heat. Don’t stir too vigorously: an occasional stir is enough. Once that stock is fully absorbed, continue to add more ladles, one at a time, for around 20 – 25 minutes, as per the usual method of risotto making. The only way to judge the readiness of the rice is by biting it. If the centre is still hard, continue cooking. Once ready, turn off the heat, and add the rosemary and Parmigiano and half the Taleggio chopped into smallish chinks. Stir through then cover with a lid and leave to steam for a few minutes. When ready to serve, add the remaining Taleggio to the dish.
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 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.
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
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.
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.
“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 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!
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.
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.