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.

 

Sweet Plums in Summer and an Old Tart Recipe

The orchard, summer’s sweet fulfillment, beckons each morning, before the heat sets in. With the passing of the month, more heavily laden boughs bend with the weight of fruits of the season. Long gone are the peaches, young berries and cherries of early summer: now is the time for slow maturing fruit, apples, pears, quinces, figs and plums. Today the ruby-red fleshed Satsuma plums announced their turn to be picked: not as sweet as the Mariposa plum of early January, but a close relative and a very good keeper.

satsuma plums

Picking fruit is a kind way to wake up. I ponder the efficacy of the netting, and the man who meticulously netted, as I reach in to gently press the fruit, testing for perfect ripeness. An abundant season thanks to good spring rain, purple plums press against each other, nudging siblings for space on the bough, beautiful cheeks full of dark juice. As the basket fills, recipes come to mind- sweets of all kinds and savoury concoctions too, jams to put down for rustic winter crostate, spicy Chinese sauces, and poached plums to eat with yoghurt or labne.

Picking plums in the cool of early morning

I’ve made this tart often, and in the past with pears, apricots and cherries. It’s a seasonal standby. The apricot version is my most popular recipe on this blog. I’ve never had much success with growing apricots and so that version is a rare treat. Commercial apricots are picked too soon and never seem to fully ripen, tasting wooden and sour. This plum version is colourful and not too sweet. When choosing plums, make sure that they are juicy, fully ripe and are red fleshed. I should stress that they are not poached beforehand, but gently pressed into the top of the almond frangipane batter before baking.

Torta di mandorle e prugne

Torta di Mandorle e Prugne con Amaretto. Italian Almond and Plum Cake with Amaretto.

Ingredients

  • 125 g softened unsalted butter
  • 150 g castor sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 50 g plain flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 375 g finely ground almond meal
  • 2 Tablespoons Amaretto liqueur ( brandy works well enough here)
  • red fleshed plums, such as blood plums, fully ripe, enough to fill the tart
  • 25 g flaked almonds

Method

  1. Preheat oven to 170 FF. Grease a 25 cm loose bottom tin and line with baking paper.
  2. Cream butter and sugar in a stand mixing bowl, then add eggs one at a time and beat for 5 minutes until thick and pale. If the mixture curdles, throw in a little of the measured flour.
  3. Stir in the flour mixed with the baking powder, then fold in the almond meal, followed by the Amaretto. Pour into the prepared tin.
  4. Arrange halved plums over the top and lightly press down so they are partly submerged. Scatter the top with the flaked almonds.
  5. Bake for 45- 50 mins. Cool in tin. Gently un-mould.

    Torta di Mandorle e Prugne

In summer, this tart keeps well in a covered box in the fridge. I reheat the slices a little before serving.

Links to my my previous plum concoctions.

Poached plums with labne and nuts and seeds

Plum Clafoutis

Plum and Semolina Cream Tart

Rustic Italian Plum Cake

Chinese Plum Sauce

 

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

Fave Dei Morti, Biscuits for The Dead

If you’re not Siciliani or Greek, you’re probably wondering what fave or broadbeans have to do with biscuits and the dead. Fave beans are the emblematic dish of death,

“The ancient Greeks saw the black spot on the petals of the broad bean plant as the stain of death and used the beans in funeral ceremonies but refused to eat them. Pythagoras thought that their hollow stems reached down into the earth to connect the living with the dead, and that therefore fave contain the souls of those who have died. The Romans honoured their connection with death but cooked and served the beans as the most sacred dish at funeral banquets.” ¹

Fava( broadbeans) flowering late in my garden.
Fava( broadbean) flowering late in my garden. They look beautiful and a little spooky too.

The day of the dead, I Morti, is celebrated in Sicily on November 2 with Fave dei Morti, little sweet biscuits formed to look like broadbeans,  as well as other sweets such as ossi da morto, bones of the dead, and sweets shaped like human figures. For many Siciliani, a tablecloth is laid out on the family tomb, complete with chrysanthemums, the flowers of the dead, and the family gathers for a picnic. This may sound rather morbid until you consider that on the day of the dead, I Morti, ancestors and relatives sneak back into the living world, back through that fissure in time, to be with the living again.

Fave dei Morti
Fave dei Morti

Given this fine Italian tradition ( not to mention its connection with similar Celtic practices), I went in search of a few customary and very simple recipes, from Siena to Sicily, to leave a few sweet things on the table or the grave, come November 1 and 2.

Fave  Dei Morti

These tiny, crunchy biscuits are easy to whip up and are wonderful dunked in something strong. Despite their simplicity, they taste festive and are very moreish. I need to make another batch for the otherworldly ‘visitors’ on November 1.

  • 100 gr almond meal ( or almonds finely ground to a powder)
  • 100 gr sugar
  • grated zest of 1/2 lemon
  • 1 egg
  • 1 Tbls rum
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 70 gr unbleached plain flour ( AP flour)

Place the ground almonds in a bowl with the sugar, lemon zest, egg and rum. Mix until well blended. Add the spices and flour and stir until the dough is well blended.

Divide the dough into four pieces. Flour a work surface very lightly and roll each piece into a log the width of a finger. Cut into 4 cm ( 1/12 inch) pieces and place them on a baking paper lined tray. Flatten each piece slightly.

Heat oven to 175ºC and bake until barely browned, around 16 minutes. Makes around 40 pieces. Dust with icing sugar and store well in a tin.

Fave dei Morti on the mantlepiece for the dead.
Fave dei Morti on the mantlepiece for the dead.

¹ Celebrating Italy, The Tastes and Traditions of Italy as Revealed through its Feasts, Festivals, and Sumptuous Foods. Carol Field. 1990

Zucca Restaurant. The Best Restaurant in Hue, Vietnam

There comes a time, every two weeks or so, when my body screams for pizza. This tends to happen more often in Asia. The scenario goes like this.”Where do you want to eat tonight? What do you feel like?” Local food options are considered, followed by an hour of walking along hot, busy streets, reading yet more menus, all delightful but strikingly similar, when finally my inner Strega rises to the fore and growls, “I would kill for a pizza”. Can we go back to Zucca restaurant? My guilty acquiescence is abated when Mr Tranquillo admits to the same desire.

Pizza Marinara, Zucca Restuarant, Hue, Vietnam
Pizza Marinara, Zucca Restaurant, Hue, Vietnam

Don’t get me wrong: I love the local Vietnamese cuisine here in Hue and have tried some excellent local restaurants in our nine-day sojourn here. The cuisine of Hue is a lot more varied and spicy than the usual Vietnamese offerings in Melbourne. But a good pizza washed down with a glass or two of wine is a heavenly thing, even when the wine in this divine coupling is the local Dalat wine, an acquired taste to which, through necessity, I have succumbed.

Pizza Heaven at Zucca, Hue
Pizza Heaven at Zucca, Hue. Pizza Marinara 139,000VND/AU$8.18

Running an Italian restaurant in an Asian tourist area is a licence to print money. These restaurants are always packed with expats, travellers and backpackers, some seeking respite from the local cuisine, while others, especially the younger travellers, needing food that is familiar and non- challenging. Asian versions of pizza and pasta are generally lost in translation. The pasta is often overcooked or drowned in Dolmio or Raguletto bottled sauce or the pizza is disappointing. Not at Zucca in Hue. The food here would rival the best Italian offerings in Rome or Melbourne.

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Meet the chef at Zucca, Huy.

After eating a couple of their excellent pizzas, we returned one night to try the pasta, in particular, the spinach and ricotta ravioli. The pasta is freshly made on the premises and the serving size is generous, topped with a home-made tomato sauce or cream. There is a tiny topping of basil ( Vietnamese basil- the only local touch). There are sadly no pics of this remarkable dish.At VND 70,000/AU$4.12, I am keen to return to try the pumpkin ravioli version.

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grilled calamari, marinade of lemongrass, nicely charred.

After we sated our lust for Italian food, we began to notice that Zucca also offers local food as well as fusion food. The grilled calamari spiedini are marinated in aromatic lemongrass, then threaded with capsicum and onion slices and grilled on charcoal. They are served with a large salad and rice. VND 100,000/AU$5.88

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The Melanzane Parmigiana is a slab of crumbed and fried eggplant, layered with mozzarella, home-made tomato salsa and parmesan. It was very sustaining, but a little dry due to my taste due to the crumbing.  VND80,000/AU$4.71

squid tempura entree with salad.
squid tempura entrée with salad.

The calamari entrée comes with a generous salad,  VND 80,000/AU$4.71,  making it a great little snack to go with a glass of fresh beer on tap  at VND10,000/AU$.59c. ( yes- 59 cents! a glass). Mr T claims that the local beer is the safest and most economical drink in Vietnam. The local chilled white wine, which is made in the cooler district of DàLat, is a bargain at VND120,000 /AU$7.06.

DaLat wine. It grows on you.
Dalat wine. It grows on you.

It really is hard to keep away from Zucca.

  • Zucca Restaurant, 3 Doi Cong street, Hue, Vietnam

Tagliatelle with Butter and Sage

siena 2
Albergo with a view, breakfast table, Siena

It was in Castellina in Chianti, just north of Siena, in 1993, when I first ate Tagliatelle con Burro e Salvia. I remember the day quite vividly. At the time I was studying Italian at the Scuola di Dante Alighieri per Stranieri for a month and, as school attendance required me to be present only from 8 am to 1 pm, I had the rest of the day, as well as each Sunday, to roam around Siena and Tuscany, often taking the local bus to a small village, followed by a lunch and a stroll. It was on one of these jaunts that I ended up in Castellina in Chianti, and not long after hopping off the bus, I was drawn to a modest ristorante where a big pile of freshly made tagliatelle was laid out on display. I was in like a shot.

Tagliatele fatta a casa
Tagliatelle fatta a casa Morgana

Although seemingly a very simple dish, fresh tagliatelle with butter and browned sage leaves does require some hours of preparation. There is no point making this dish with dried pasta or even shop purchased fresh pasta. This is where I get bossy. The pasta must be freshly made up to two hours before. This is why it tastes so good and comforting.

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Tagliatelle con burro, salvia e parmigiano

Making pasta at home is an easy process if you have a little time AND a helper. I never make pasta on my own, but when young Daisy Chef is around, what seems like a tedious business becomes a joy. We flour up the benches, get the aprons on and make a load of yellow snakes. She loves to crank that handle and feed the stretched pasta through the wide cutting blades.

Rolling the pasta.

Taglatelle con Burro e Salvia- Tagliatelle with Butter and Sage

First make the pasta.

  • 300 g flour, preferably farina doppio zero, or ’00’ flour
  • 3 large eggs ( around 60 g each)

Make the pasta dough either by hand or in a food processor. I simply place these two ingredients into the food processor and pulse until the dough clumps together. If it doesn’t, have another small beaten egg on hand and add it, bit by bit, until the pasta clumps. Don’t over process it.

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Feeding the pasta through at number 5.

Bring the dough together on a lightly floured bench and, without kneading, cover the dough ball in plastic for 20 minutes or so to rest. Unwrap the ball and knead the dough for around 5 minutes, turning and folding, until it is smooth. Wrap again in plastic and leave on the bench to rest for another 30 minutes or more, until you are ready to continue. In summer, this step may involve resting the dough in the fridge, but always bring it back to room temperature before rolling

Flour the bench well. Feed the dough through the pasta machine, twice at each number, from 7 to 5, then once on each number down to number 2. If the dough sheets get sticky along the way, dust them with more flour.

Feed the long sheets through the tagliatelle blade, then place them on a large flour covered tea towel and toss around so that the strands don’t stick together. Cover the pasta with another tea towel until ready to use.

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The fun part!
  • Boil up a large pot of water and add ample salt.
  • Cook the pasta until al dente- two minutes is usually enough but this will depend on how long the pasta has been resting.
  • Meanwhile, melt some unsalted butter in a wide frying pan and cook some sage leaves until crisp. Remove. Then add more butter to the pan to melt. Return the sage leaves. The butter is main sauce so be generous, around 40 g for two serves.
  • Drain the tagliatelle and toss through the butter and sage in the pan. Add some freshly ground pepper or nutmeg. Serve with lots of freshly grated grana padano or reggiano parmigiano.

    Daisy picks sage.
    Daisy picks sage.

 

 

Tuscan Easter Buns, Pan di Ramerino

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What happens on Boxing Day in Australia? Yes, you guessed it, the hot cross buns show up in the supermarkets, a good three or more months before Easter. I have not succumbed to a single premature Pasquale bun to date, despite the array of warm specimens offered to me by my extended family on camping weekends. Good humoured accusations fly, about being a born- again hypocrite, as I, a non- Christian, patiently wait for the traditional bun eating day. I am rather fond of tradition and religious rituals of many persuasions. Now is the time to make and eat hot cross buns.

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This year’s offering is a traditional Tuscan Easter bun recipe- Pan de Ramerino– a recipe that has been around since medieval times although adapted over the years. They were once eaten on Holy Thursday so I am eating mine tomorrow, though I may sneak one today as they cool on the rack. It is interesting to note that these buns are now popular all year round in Tuscany, not just at Easter. Just goes to show, it’s hard to keep a good bun down.

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The recipe comes from Carol Field’s The Italian Baker, who attributes the recipe to a Florentine baker, Giovanni Galli. It is very lightly sweetened: the combination of rosemary oil and raisins is a delightful and aromatic combination. The buns are not as cloying as the ones I know.

Pan di Ramerino, Rosemary and Raisin Buns

Makes 12 buns

The ingredients are listed in cups/spoons OR grams.

  • 3 ½ teaspoons/10 g active dry yeast
  • ¾ cup/180 g warm water
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • ¼ cup/55 g olive oil, plus more for brushing
  • 2/½ tablespoons/35 g sugar
  • 3¾ cups/500 g unbleached plain flour
  • 1 teaspoon/5 g salt
  • 3-4 sprigs rosemary
  • 2/3 cup/100 g golden raisins
  • 1/3 cup/75 g apricot glaze

In a large bowl of a stand mixer, stir the yeast into the warm water. Let stand until creamy. Add the eggs, the egg yolk, 2 tablespoons of the oil, and the sugar and mix thoroughly with the paddle. Add the flour and salt and mix until the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl. Change to the dough hook and knead at low-speed for two minutes, then at medium speed for 2 minutes more. The dough should be elastic and supple.

First Rise. Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap or a plastic bowl cover and let rise until doubled.

Shaping and Second rise.

While the dough is rising, sauté 2 rosemary sprigs very briefly in the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil. Toss the rosemary out after it has flavoured the oil. Add the raisins and sauté very briefly in the oil. Remove from the heat and add 1 chopped fresh rosemary sprig to the mixture. Cool then add this mixture to the dough and knead, using the mixer, until well incorporated.

Cut the dough into 12 pieces and roll each piece into a ball. Place on a baking paper covered baking sheet and cover with a towel. Let the rolls rise until doubled, or about 1 hour.

Reshape the buns, which will have slumped a little, into definite balls. Brush the tops with oil. Slash a deep double cross or tic-tac-toe pattern in the top of each bun. Let the buns rise again for another 10-15 minutes.

Baking. Preheat the oven to 200º. Bake for 20 minutes. Remove the buns to a wire rack and brush the tops with an apricot glaze.

Glassa di albicocca/ apricot glaze

  • 2/3 cup good quality apricot jam
  • 2- 3 teaspoons water or fresh lemon juice

Heat the jam and water in a small heavy saucepan over moderate heat until the mixture comes to a boil, then strain through a sieve. Use the glaze while still warm.

Buona Pasqua a Tutti.

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Pasta con Capesante. Scallop Season.

Sea scallops, besides being a delicious seasonal treat, come loaded with myth and metaphor, from the fertility symbol of antiquity (the shell symbolising the protective and nurturing principle, and inwardly, the “life-force slumbering within the Earth”, an emblem of the vulva) to the modern-day adoption of the scallop shell for less romantic purposes, such as the Shell Petroleum company.

The most endearing connection is the scallop’s association with St James/ Santiago/St Jacques. Those who have walked part, or all the camino, arriving in Santiago di Compostela in Galicia, will be familiar with the cockle shell carried on the end of their bastone or walking stick, to arrive at the Cathedral in Santiago for a blessing or mass. The scallop shell is the most ubiquitous tourist memento from Santiago di Compostela and probably has been since medieval times.

Santiago in his shell covered hat.
Santiago in his shell covered hat.

For the pre-Christian Celt, the scallop shell resembled the setting sun, which was the focus of Celtic rituals in Galicia. The camino route was a Celtic death journey westwards towards the setting sun, terminating at the Finisterra, the end of the world, on the Costa da Morte.

This all makes lots of sense really but then how did St James, Santiago, St Jacques, become associated with sea scallops?

More scallop onamentation on Saint James.
More scallop ornamentation on Saint James.

The association can most likely be traced to the legend that the apostle once rescued a knight covered in scallops. An alternative version of the legend holds that while St. James’ remains were being transported to Galicia in Spain, the horse of a knight fell into the water, and emerged covered in the shells.

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The Italians have three names for the tasty scallop, the most common being capesante, deriving from medieval times when priests used the shell to pour holy water onto the heads of those receiving baptism. The alternate names, conchiglia di San Giacomo (like the French coquilles Saint Jacques)  and conchiglia del pellegrino simply meaning St James’ shell or the shell of the pilgrim.

The English derivation of scallop comes from the French, escalope, meaning ‘shell’, not so historically romantic.

Scallop statues of Santiago di Compostella.
Scallop statues of Santiago di Compostela.

Scallop season begins here in late July (mid winter) in the Bass Straight central district, around the cold and pristine waters off the east Coast of Victoria. The quota has increased this season, indicating that stocks are healthy, and usually runs till early December. Scallops from Lakes Entrance are in a class of their own, especially if you can get them as soon as they arrive in the fisherman’s co-op.

One of my favourite scallop dishes combines them with a super fine pasta such as capellini or tagliatelline egg pasta, with the scallops finely sliced and tossed with lots of garlic sauce and a hint of chilli.

capellini con capsante

Tagliatellini con Capesante. Fine egg pasta with scallops.

Ingredients for Two

  • 200 g thin egg pasta (tagliatelline)
  • 2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • two pinches dried chilli flakes
  • your best olive oil, a generous glug
  • 250 gr scallops, cleaned, sliced.
  • dry white wine, around 1/4 glass.
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • finely chopped handful of Italian parsley.

Method

  • Cook the pasta in ample salted boiling water, according to packet instructions.
  • Meanwhile, add olive oil to a large frying pan. When it is hot, quickly stir around the scallop slices. Don’t cook for more than one minute.
  • Add garlic and chilli flakes, toss about, then add the wine, then finely ground black pepper. Toss again. If the pasta isn’t ready, remove the scallop sauce from the heat.
  • Drain the pasta well. Add to the frying pan, folding through with the scallop sauce. Add the parsley then serve in heated bowls.
    tagliatelline con capesante
    tagliatelline con capesante

    This song goes so nicely with scallop season and memories of Santiago de Compostela. Chove en Santiago by Luar na Lubre. When I first heard this song echoing down a rainy lane in Santiago de Compostela, I cried. Sung in Galician, with strong Celtic threads, it still overwhelms me.

Farro Soup and Longing for Lucca.

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.Zuppa di Farro alla Lucchese

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.

A civilised thing- a  bar at one of the tiny railway stations in the Garfagnana. Espresso or Vino?
A civilised foyer- a bar at one of the tiny railway stations in the Garfagnana. Espresso or Vino?

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.

View from our little apartment in Lucca.
View from our little apartment in Lucca.
Apartment  with a view. Lucca.
Apartment in Lucca. Zuppa di Farro on the stove.

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.

Minestra di Farro Lucchese/ Farro soup from Lucca

  • 100 g dried borlotti beans ( fagioli scritti)
  • 100 g Italian farro
  • EV Olive oil
  • 1-2 carrots
  • 1-2 sticks celery
  • 1 onion
  • 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

Preparation

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.

Farro and Borlotti for soup.
Farro and Borlotti for soup.

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.

Soup base Ingredients for  a soffrito
Soup base ingredients for a soffrito

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.

Daisy loves soup.
Daisy loves soup.

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.

Farro soup
Farro soup

Swordfish Inspired by the Mezzogiorno

The Mezzogiorno, a term used to describe Southern Italy, is “hot, dry and sea-girt, wracked by earthquake and eruption.” It is “the furthest part of Italy from Europe and the nearest to the rest of the world.” So opens Peter Robb’s Midnight in Sicily, a chilling look at the role of the Mafia in Sicily at the end of the 20th century.¹ It’s odd, but when I see Pesce Spada or swordfish for sale at the fishmongers, I think of Midnight in Sicily and then I recall Palermo. These three things are always interconnected in my mind- fish, book, place. Before visiting Palermo in 2000, I had never eaten this species of fish. I do now, but only rarely, when the pale pink slices look seasonally tempting and I know the fish monger well enough to ask him to slice the steak horizontally into two much thinner slices. I like my swordfish really thin, a little like a large flattened schnitzel. They are then fried quickly and briefly and served in the Palermitano way, that is in salmoriglio, with a mere dribble of a sauce made from finely chopped oregano, parsley, garlic, capers, lemon zest and olive oil. In winter when fresh oregano is on the wane, I make a robust sauce of pounded rosemary, garlic, lemon zest, salt and olive oil.  Served with a neat pile of lightly cooked spinach, a wedge of lemon and a few waxy potatoes, I’m back to Palermo again.

Pece Spada con Salsa di Rosmarino
Pesce Spada con Salsa di Rosmarino

With the rest of my piece of Swordfish, as one slice is always too much for one meal, I concoct a little Spaghetti Puttanesca. There is much debate about the origin of this dish with its amusing name involving a prostitute. It seems that it was invented in the 1960s, not by the busy whore or puttana of the title, but by a restaurateur on Ischia, who, short of ingredients, threw this dish together, in response to some customers who demanded  ‘Facci una puttanata qualsiasi.’ (make whatever rubbish you have).² Some essentials are garlic, some canned chopped tomato, but not too much juice which makes the pasta swim, a few chopped capers and black olives, parsley or basil, and anchovies. Sometimes I start my version with one finely chopped onion cooked down in olive oil, then I add the chopped garlic, and then small cubes of swordfish. When these components are just cooked, the odds and ends are added in order, then in goes the cooked pasta for a quick toss around in the sauce, then the chosen fresh herb. In the spirit of the original, it is thrown together. I am a working girl too, in cucina e nell’orto!

Spaghetti Putanesca con Pesce Spada
Spaghetti Putanesca con Pesce Spada

These two fish meals for two were based on 450 gr piece of swordfish (AU$11.00). After it was sliced thinly, the first meal was portioned at of around 135 gr each, and the rest went into the pasta dish the following day. Supermarket pre-cut portions of fish are too large, usually around 220 gr per piece. Fishmongers will usually oblige and cut your fish the way you like it which is another good reason to avoid supermarkets and stores with pre-packaged plastic wrapped food.

  • ¹ Midnight in Sicily, Peter Robb 1996
  • ² https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spaghetti_alla_puttanesca