Books and winter go hand in hand. I was planning to stick to library books for inspiration but a few purchases have crept through the door. The cost of a good second hand cookbook is usually less than half the price of a new magazine. Savers second hand store provides most of my cheap finds, while the Book Grocer is a great source of remaindered books.
Many species of fish are at their peak in winter. The snapper were almost jumping at the Preston market last week, along with a winter specialty, a rare item, small gutted cuttlefish. I bought one large snapper carcass to make fish stock to freeze, one snapper to bake, and 1/2 kilo of cuttle fish to freeze. Five fishy meals for $19. I was very happy with this baked snapper recipe from Neil Perry. We devoured young Roger the Snapper with gusto.
In the depths of winter, Minestra di Farro alla Lucchese, or Farro soup Lucca style, hits the spot. For me, it’s a one dish meal, un piatto unico, especially when served with good bread, olive oil and grated parmigiana. It is also a kind of Tardis soup, a little ‘time machine’ bowl of goodness, flying me back to Lucca and the Garfagnana hills nearby.
Many restaurants around Lucca list Farro soup on the menu, especially in the popular touristy places offering piatti tipici Lucchesi. After experiencing a few good ones, and some not so good, I set about copying the local version during our extended visits to Lucca back in 2008 and again in 2011. On the first occasion we rented a little apartment close to the railway station and just outside the walls of the city. Being close to the station enabled us to choof up into the Garfagnana hills, the home of Italian farro, to spend the days visiting the villages of Barga and Castelnuovo di Garfagnana, steep hill towns that at certain times of the year seem forgotten in time.
The first time I visited Barga, the dark slippery cobblestoned lanes echoed with the sounds of the Celtic fiddle. It turns out that there was a Scottish musician in residence and his little studio faced directly onto the street. There are a few other Scottish peculiarities around the town-a genuine fish and chip shop on the outskirts, most unusual in Italy, and advertisements around the place about a visiting delegation from a sister town in Scotland. Many folk from Barga emigrated to Scotland in poorer times. Perhaps the landscape looked familiar. Some returned as adults, hence the strong connection. Well, Barga me!, said with an Italian/ Scottish accent.
On the second occasion, we rented a small house around 7 kms out from Lucca. La Casa dello Scrittore, a small rural house in the grounds of Casale dei Tigli, is situated close to vineyards and olive groves. The charming young man and owner, Guido, delivered beautiful gifts to us each day- magnificent olive oil, a great local red wine or two and a Buccellato, the sweet fruit studded bread of Lucca. The car was essential for forays back into Lucca or further afield into the hills and small villages, to visit restored villas and their gardens or to lunch at my favourite Italian restaurant, Antica Locanda di Sesto.
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The terrace. Casa dello Scrittore, Lucca
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Minestra di Farro Lucchese/Farro soup from Lucca
100 g dried borlotti beans ( fagioli scritti)
100 g Italian farro
EV Olive oil
1-2 sticks celery
5 cloves of garlic
1 potato (optional)
a few leaves of cavolo nero ( Tuscan Kale) (optional)
1 can of tomatoes, chopped
2 tablespoons tomato paste
fresh herbs such as sage and marjoram
Soak the borlotti beans overnight. The following morning, cook the beans in ample water, with a few herbs, until softened. Also soak the farro for an hour or so.
In a large soup pot, make a soffritto of onion, carrot and celery. Chop them finely and cook gently in olive oil. Add the garlic towards the end.
Add the farro, cooked beans, tomato paste, can of tomatoes and chopped herbs. Cover with enough water. Cook until the farro is soft and ready . You may need to add a little more water along the way. Add the finely shredded Tuscan kale, season well with salt and pepper, and cook for a further 5 minutes.
Serve with a drizzle of good oil and grated parmesan.
Many versions of this minestra cook the beans and other ingredients first, then puree half, returning them to the pot, before adding the farro to the mix. I prefer to leave the beans whole as they shed enough thickening as the soup cooks. The pureed version is extremely thick and the farro tends to catch.
Cucina Povera is my kind of cooking. Historically, as the name suggests, it is the cuisine of the poor, or rather that of the Italian contadini or peasant class, those who relied on their own home grown seasonal produce and preserves stored in the dispensa, but not much else. It also suggests eating what’s on hand- what is available or in season. As Italy is now a very urban society, this style of cooking can be seen, historically, as rural cooking. It becomes cuisine of the wealthy when many different fresh herbs and vegetables are purchased from farmers’ markets to produce a simple Pasta Primavera.
The garden is your best friend: grow food among your flowers, in your front yard, on your balcony, on the nature strip, in containers. Many tasty and nutritious pasta dishes can be thrown together with a handful of wild rocket, herbs or silverbeet (chard). These things grow like weeds. Along with a few staples from the pantry, such as rice, pasta, lentils and dried beans, anchovies and EV olive oil, cucina povera is a few short steps away.
This week’s pasta ingredients are shown in the photo below. It assumes you have stashed a few little luxuries in the pantry, such as some very good extra virgin olive oil, and a chunk of parmigiano Grano Padano or Reggiano. The other little splurge for today’s pasta recipe is a box of Farro pasta, in this case by Monograno Felicetti. I picked this up at the Mediterranean Wholesalers in Brunswick, and I must say here, that I receive no kickbacks from either of these companies. Substitute any short pasta you have on hand.
I picked some lovely leggy broccoli shoots, a small radicchio, young broad beans/fave, a few baby kale leaves, some fresh oregano and a big silverbeet/chard leaf. Some of the greens were shredded, hand torn or plucked. The picture also shows two small chunks of cheese- fetta and parmigiana. Some goats cheese, or tiny nuggets of gorgonzola, would make a good substitute. Again, use what cheese you have. Not shown, but always assumed, are a few cloves of garlic, smashed up, salt, and olive oil. I often melt a few anchovy fillets for flavour, but not this time- I wanted a pure Spring taste.
Into a big open pan goes a generous glug of oil and a few cloves of smashed garlic. After a quick stir on medium heat, in go the garden pickings.
Meanwhile, or even before one plays with the garden greens, a big stockpot of boiling salted water is on the go, then Butta La Pasta, throw in the pasta. I count on 100 grs per adult if the dish is unpiatto unico, a one course dish.
Within no time, the leaves wilt and the baby broad beans soften. Time for some salt and a few grinds of pepper.
When the farro spirali pasta is ready, scoop out a little pasta water before draining.
Add the drained pasta to the cooked vegetables and consider whether to add a few tablespoons of the reserved cooking water to loosen the dish, making a garlicky unctuous sauce. Increase the heat and briefly toss again. Add lots of ground pepper then crumbled fetta. Feel the creative energy of Spring. Then plate.
Serve with a golden lick of good olive oil and some grated parmesan.
Spring on a plate.
A little footnote. Today my blog, Almost Italian, turns one. Where did that year go? A big thanks to all my friends, followers, and those who read these posts. I really appreciate your support. It encourages me to continue and to learn. Have a look at my post one year ago– it’s a funny looking thing about artichokes. Francesca
Every so often, a new product leaps from the shelf and says, “PICK ME, PICK ME.” This was the case recently when I was strolling along the vast aisles of the Mediterranean Wholesalers in Brunswick. This magic emporium of Italian gastronomy ( with a bit of Spanish thrown in ) is disturbingly tempting and I seem to come back with things that were NOT on the list.
This was the case with this box of grain by Gallo. 3 Ceriali- Riso, Farro e Orzo. The instructions are in Italian but are simple enough. Non Mettere a Bagno – don’t soak, and Tempo di cottura– cooking time- 12 minutes. Obviously, the grains are par-boiled. This small detail on the box led to moments of internal struggle. The purist traditional wholefoody lady was bowled over by the 12 minute promise; the pragmatist furtively smuggled the box into her basket.
As I opened the box, my mind wandered to the hearty soups of Lucca, the farro of the Garfagnana mountains, the trattorie of Urbino. But it’s summer here, and these cereals, simply boiled, could make a wondrous salad base. Or stuffing for peppers and eggplants. Or a filling for silver beet leaves, a big involtino of goodness. Or taken on camping trips. Or, or…. a Pilaf.
I followed the instructions, simply boiling the grains for 12 minutes. I believe the grains need longer- around 18 minutes.
Note- my recipes are flexible and are based on the ‘handful of this, a bit of that’ approach to cooking.
Recipe for a simple pilaf style side dish
1 cup of 3 cereal (Gallo brand)
4 onions, sliced finely
a big glug of EV olive oil
two garlic cloves, chopped finely
fresh herbs of choice, example oregano
a big handful of broad beans
Cook the grains in a large pot of boiling water for around 18-20 minuutes or to taste. (no salt)
Meanwhile, caramelise the onions in a pan with some good olive oil for 10 minues, adding the chopped garlic towards the end.
Then shell and cook the broadbeans in boiling water for two minutes, drop into cold water, drain and peel off outer shells.
Add the cooked grains to the onions, add herbs to taste, then add the cooked broad beans.
Serve as a side dish.
Note: as a part of Australian law that require bloggers to disclose any kickbacks they receive, I must add that I am not receiving any gratuity from the meditterranean wholesalers, or any one else for that matter. I just happen to like the place. If only our radio shock jocks were as transparent.