Another Green Recipe from a Militant Gardener

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?

Pasta della settimana

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.

Simply pink. A few stray small garlic before cleaning. I’ll use this lot while young and ‘green’.

Notes.

  • 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.

 

Pasta Fortunata. Pasta of the Week.

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

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

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

Molisana Rotelle. Just for big kids.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Classic Pasta and Fagioli

There are so many versions of Pasta e Fagioli in Italy and on the web, it almost seems superfluous to add my two bob’s worth on the topic. Anyone who has an Italian nonna makes a more traditional/better/regional/authentic version. During winter, Pasta e Fagioli, (pasta and beans) is one of the most useful dishes to know. Is it an entrée, a soup or a main dish? It can be all of these but given the heartiness and distinct lack of brothy elements, I tend to make this dish as a piatto unico, a stand alone dish, to be served with bread, a few drops of new oil, and perhaps some Parmigiano. Most versions are thick with beans and pasta and very little broth: some are made slowly with fresh borlotti beans, while less desirable versions are thrown together with canned beans, canned tomato and cheap industrial pasta. It is a timeless classic rustic dish, Cucina Povera Italiana, made in the past through necessity using simple ingredients stored for winter. Today, it satisfies that need in us all for comfort food on a cold winter’s day.

Like many other Italian dishes, this one also starts with a classic soffritto, that holy trio of flavour, emerging from the slow sauté of carrots, onion and celery. The soffrito vegetables must be chopped very finely so that they almost disappear once they are cooked. Another element often added at the soffrito stage is pancetta and lardo. I omit these ingredients given my dietary preferences but try to find other umani elements to flavour the dish, either through rich stock, herbs, garlic or even anchovy fillets, reduced to a salty mash. I also reserve a little deep vegetable stock to thin the mixture.

First pressed and just delicious. The first harvest of Cobram’s new oil. Only for dressing up.

Ingredients

  • 200 g borlotti beans, either fresh or dried
  • 250 gr tomato passata or finely diced tomatoes
  • 80 gr onion finely chopped
  • 30 gr celery finely chopped
  • 30 gr carrot finely chopped
  • 1 garlic finely chopped
  • 1 small branch fresh rosemary
  • 3 Bay leaves
  • 10 g EV olive oil
  • black pepper
  • fine sea salt
  • 100- 200g of pasta ditalini, depending on your preference for a thick or thinner version.

Method

Cook the beans. If using dried borlotti, soak overnight then cook in water for around 80 minutes. Add the bay leaves to the water but no salt which may make the beans remain hard. If using fresh borlotti, there’s no need to soak them and they should cook in under 30 minutes, depending on their their freshness. Keep the cooking water.

When the beans are done, make a soffrito with the onion, celery and carrot. Add the oil to a large heavy based soup pot and gently saute these vegetables until soft and golden, adding the chopped garlic and finely chopped rosemary towards the end. (Traditionally, the garlic would be added to the cooking oil first, cooked until just golden then fished out before adding the soffrito ingredients. If you don’t love garlic as much as I do, consider that method. I like to keep the garlic for more flavour)

Add the beans and a little of the cooking water. Then add the tomato and heat through gently. Remove two ladles of the mixture and puree with a hand mixer. Return this back to the soup pot. If too thick, add a little bean cooking water or vegetable stock.

Add the pasta, and cook until al dente. Watch the pot at this stage as the pasta and beans have a tendency to stick when this thick. Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper.

Serve in lovely wide and shallow bowls with a drizzle of fine oil and some good bread.

Bread of the day with Pasta of the week.

Other Pasta of the Week ideas:

Maccheroni Rigati with Sweet Pepper Sauce

Ditalini with Cacio and Eggs

Gnocchi Sardi with Gorgonzola, Silver beet and walnuts.

Pantacce with Borlotti Beans and Rugola

 

 

 

 

 

Christmas Biscotti from Siracusa

I’m looking forward to a quiet, relaxing Christmas this year. During the weeks leading up to that day, I won’t be counting plates, cutlery, wine glasses, napkins, gutting rooms and borrowing chairs, moving furniture to make more room, ironing table cloths, emptying fridges, making lists and more lists, and anticipating an event for 29 or so guests. On the day, I may be sitting under a shady tree, eating some simply cooked fresh fish, followed by a few light biscotti, enjoying a conversation, good music, and a bottle of wine.

biscotti da Siracusa, Sicilia
Biscotti da Siracusa, Sicilia

Despite this once in a lifetime opportunity, or escapist retreat, the making of festive delicacies is, for me, very much part of December and still continues. Last year I enjoyed making Cuddureddi, a spicy little Sicilian tart. They were eaten in the weeks leading up to Christmas day or were given away to friends. This year, I am looking to Sicily once again for inspiration. What could be more tempting than chocolate, almond and cherry biscotti, usually found in the pasticcerie in Siracusa, Sicily?

Anaretti di Ciocccolato e Ciliege
Anaretti di Ciocccolato e Ciliegia

These little almond, cherry and chocolate bites can be thrown together very quickly and only take around 12 – 15 minutes to cook. They are soft centred, with the texture of a truffle more than a biscotto. They are gluten-free, dairy free and very moreish. Wrap a few in cellophane to give to your child’s favourite teacher, or give little gifts to loved ones during Advent. Dicembre e` un mese bellissimo, mentre il giorno di Natale puo` essere stressante!

Amaretti di Cioccolato e Ciliegia/  Chocolate cherry amaretti biscuits

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

    bisoctti ready for oven
    biscotti ready for oven

Preheat the oven to 160 c.

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

Place the icing sugar in a bowl. Form balls with the almond mixture then roll them in the icing sugar. Place them on paper lined baking sheets.

Bake until they have a golden tinge, approximately 12- 15 minutes. Cool on a wire rack. Makes around 20 balls. Note, my edited pics make the balls look rather large but they only measure around 4 cm.

biscotti di Siracusa
Biscotti di Siracusa. Amaretti con ciliegie e cioccolato

Adapted from Flavours of Sicily, Ursula Ferrigno, 2016

For my dear friend Diane. Let’s spend next Christmas in Sicilia, cara mia.

Take Three Eggs

Eggs are always in season around here, though the number increases dramatically during Spring. I’m now gathering around 15 eggs per day, requiring some strategic marketing as well as more baking. My grandmother, with regard to the economy of keeping chooks, used to say, ‘put in a shilling and get back sixpence’, and I often think this is true. Fresh egg pasta is one simple way to reduce the stash.

Cenci or rag Pasta
Cenci or rag pasta

Take three eggs and crack them into a bowl over 300 gr of plain white flour, do a little mixing, some kneading, some waiting, followed by some cutting, and within one hour, you have enough pasta to feed a crowd. Of all the transformations that happen in my kitchen, pasta making is high up on the list, running a close second to the mystical and semi- religious transfiguration of flour, salt and water into bread.

An assortment of pasta shapes from one batch of dough.
An assortment of pasta shapes from one batch of dough.

I often use a softer flour for pasta making, such as an Italian doppio zero ’00’ flour but really, any plain white flour is just as good. After measuring the flour, add it to a bowl, then crack 3 large eggs into the centre and mix well. There is no need to make a little volcano of flour on a flat bench with eggs cracked into its crater. Volcanoes are messy things and explode in unexpected ways. Use a bowl. I usually have an extra egg yolk on hand, in case more moisture is needed to bring the dough together. I don’t use water, salt or oil. Just flour and eggs! After the dough comes together, knead well on a floured bench for around 10 minutes. As you knead, the dough will turn silky and more elastic.

assembling the spinach and riicotta caenneloni
Assembling the spinach and ricotta cannelloni. The pasta squares must be cooked briefly in boilings salted water before assembling.

I often cheat, and who doesn’t, by mixing the dough in the food processor, then when it forms a ball, I remove it to knead on the bench. There’s no getting out of the kneading: it is the only tedious part of pasta making so turn the radio on. (Did I hear you sing that old song, ‘who listens to the radio, that’s what I’d like to know.’? Has Jon Faine become a shock jock? Turn that man off and play some Puccini instead.)

Spinach and ricotta cannelloni
Spinach and ricotta cannelloni. Don’t overdo the tomato element.

Take the ball of kneaded dough and flatten into a disc, then wrap it in plastic and leave it for at least half an hour to relax and further hydrate. It won’t hurt to let the dough rest for longer so you can go out at this point, saving the fun part for later.

Hand cranked pasta machines: a basic and economical kitchen tool.

Attach your pasta machine to the bench. Flour up some cutting boards and tea towels. Cut one sixth of the pasta dough and feed through the machine at its widest setting. Fold it in half then feed through again. This makes the pasta sheet wider. Then continue to feed the pasta through the rollers, lower the setting cogs down a notch each time, stopping at number two. This part of pasta making is best shared with a helper.

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Two trays of cannelloni: one for four and the smaller one for two.

Now you get to choose the shapes you want. My last week’s batch produced enough pasta squares for two trays of cannelloni, some cenci or rags which I love to add to soup, and a pile of cappellini, a finely cut spaghetti. Three eggs. Three hundred grams of flour. Three meals. It really is much simpler than my long winded description and the results are worth the effort.

I followed Stefano de Pieri’s recipe for Spinach and Ricotta Cannelloni, from his Modern Italian Food, 2004, which is reproduced here, unchanged. Sometimes it’s good to follow a recipe for a dish that you think you know well. You might learn some new tricks. I always use a heat diffuser when making besciamella or white sauce as it has a tendency to catch. And you will need to cut around 20 squares from your fresh pasta batch for this amount of filling.

Ingredients

300g spinach
1 tablespoon butter
500g fresh ricotta
2 eggs
100g parmigiano reggiano, grated, plus an extra handful
salt and pepper
200g  home made egg pasta

Bechamel Sauce

150g unsalted butter
100g plain flour
1.5 litres hot milk
freshly grated nutmeg

Method

  1. To make the béchamel sauce, melt the butter and mix with the flour. Cook a little but without browning. Stir in the milk, bit by bit, mixing with a wooden spoon. Initially the mixture will be like a gluggy lump but as you add the milk it will break down more and more. Cook it gently for 20 minutes or more, taking care that it does not stick to the bottom of the pan. Add nutmeg to taste. This recipe should yield a fairly soft sauce, which is what we want. If it is too thick add more milk or water. If you think you have some lumps in it, pass it through a fine sieve and everything will be all right.
  2. Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil and blanch the spinach, drain and squeeze dry. (I far prefer using proper bunches of spinach, rather than ready-trimmed little spinach leaves.) Roughly chop the spinach.
  3. Heat the butter in a large pan and briefly sauté the spinach. In a separate bowl, combine the ricotta, eggs, grated cheese, salt and pepper. Stir in the spinach and mix well.
  4. Roll the pasta through the last setting on your pasta machine and cut the sheets into sections about 10 cm wide. Cook the pasta sheets in plenty of boiling salted water, then plunge into a bowl of cold water. When cold, place on a tea towel to dry.
  5. When you are ready to cook the cannelloni, preheat the oven to 180°C. Spread a third of the béchamel sauce over the bottom of a baking dish. Lay the pasta sheets on a work surface and spoon some filling along the centre of each. Roll up to form fat cigars. Arrange the filled cannelloni in the baking dish and spread the remaining béchamel sauce over the top. Sprinkle with the extra cheese and bake for around 15 minutes until the top is bubbling and golden.
  6. If you like, you can introduce a tomato element to this dish. Spoon a few tablespoons of home-made tomato sauce over the béchamel before topping with the extra grated cheese. Don’t overdo the tomato though, as the acid can rather dominate the flavour.

Next Post- what I made with the Cenci Pasta.

Lemon, Ricotta and Almond Cake

There are so many versions of Lemon and Ricotta cake out there that I was reticent about adding another. This one, I can assure you, will go straight into the hand written sepia toned exercise book that I reserve for very good cakes. The recipe includes 4 lemons, and the batter is lightened by 6 eggs, the whites whipped and folded through at the end. It is an expensive cake but then it serves around 10 people, or two greedy people who eat it every day for dessert and afternoon tea. When served hot, it resembles a lemon delicious pudding. When served cold, it becomes more like a lemon cheesecake. It also keeps well. In summer, store the cake in a container in the fridge. Buonissimo e Molto Siciliano.                                         l

Torta di Limone, Ricotta e Mandorle,  Lemon, Ricotta and Almond Cake

Ingredients

  • 250 g unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 250 g caster sugar
  • 6 free range eggs, separated
  • 250 g almonds, ground
  • 75 g self-raising flour
  • 1 pinch of salt
  • zest of 5 organic lemons and juice of 4 organic lemons
  • 400 g fresh ricotta

    Lemon, Ricotta and Almond Cake
    Lemon, Ricotta and Almond Cake

Preheat the oven to 180°C (Gas Mark 4).

Butter and paper a 25 cm round springform cake tin. Beat the butter and sugar in an electric mixer until very light and fluffy. With the motor running, add the egg yolks, one at a time, until all are incorporated.

Combine the ground almonds with the flour, salt and lemon zest. Fold into the batter.

Whisk the lemon juice with the ricotta until light and airy.

Fold into the cake batter.

Beat the egg whites until they form soft peaks. Fold them carefully into the batter.

Pour the batter into the prepared cake tin and bake for 50 minutes. Test by inserting a skewer into the cake. It should come out clean when cooked through.

Remove the cake from the oven and turn it out onto a cake rack to cool. It will remain moist for a few days. Store in the fridge in warm weather.

From Four Seasons, Manuela Darling-Gansser, Hardie Grant Books.

And Manuela’s great food and travel blog can be found here.

Rustic Italian Plum Cake

Torta Rustica con Prugne
Torta Rustica con Prugne

Cleaning out the fridge would have to be THE most objectionable of kitchen tasks- a duty better palmed off onto someone else, with generous bribes of unbridledness, or 25,000 frequent flyer points or both. But more often than not, the painful job lands on me. Amongst the buried treasure, wilting vegetables, jars of Chinese sauces past their use by date, half used tubs of mouldy mascarpone and… you know the score…. I found a bag of blood plums, just a little too ripe, but still consumable. Plums are my favourite fruit and I am a little sad when the season comes to an end. This bonanza was my reward. And so was the this lovely Italian inspired cake which soon followed the find.

served with runny cream
Served with runny cream.

Torta Rustica con Prugne. Rustic Italian Plum Cake

  • 400 g plain flour
  • 3 teaspoons baking powder
  • 300 g caster sugar, plus extra for the top.
  • 4 large eggs
  • 2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
  • 150 g unsalted butter, melted and cooled to lukewarm
  • 8-10 plums ( blood plums are the best here) halved and stoned

Line the bottom and sides of a 26 cm round springform cake tin with baking paper and butter the paper well.

Sift the flour and baking powder into a bowl. Combine 300 g caster sugar and the eggs in a bowl and whisk until the mixture is pale and thick ( use a stand mixer for ease or preparation). Fold in the flour mixture and lemon zest in three batches, alternating with the melted butter, beginning and ending with flour.

Spoon half the batter into the prepared tin, and top with the half the plums, cut side up. Smooth the remaining batter on to top and make a topping with the remaining plums, cut side up. Sprinkle with the extra sugar and bake at 180 C/160 C fan oven for 60-70 minutes, or until a skewer comes out clean.

Leave in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes, then remove and slide the cake from the bottom, and let cool on the rack completely. Serve in wedges with cream or ice cream. Serves 8 to 10.

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My slightly different version.

It pays to read a recipe well before commencing. Here I have inadvertently shoved all the plums into the centre, rather than layering them. This made for a wonderful red gooey middle. And now that the plum season is over in Australia, I cannot attempt the layered version until this time next year.

From Splendido, The Best of Italian Cooking. Loukie Werle, 2001

Around the Outside. Italian Vegetarian Contorni

Small plates of ‘sides’ have become very fashionable in Melbourne: many modern, inner suburban restaurants now offer meals involving a long sequence of little shared plates which are usually vegetarian. This is a great trend and one that I hope will spread. But surely there must be a better English word than ‘sides’ or ‘small plates’ for these sexy vegetarian offerings.  ‘Accompaniments’ sounds too wooden and old school. The Italian term contorni strikes me as a more befitting word, meaning the things that surround il secondo or main course. I contorni traditionally have their own section on the Italian menu. If visiting Italy, read the menu in a different way, perhaps in a more modern way, and you’re likely to find plenty of fresh tasty vegetarian food in Italian restaurants to savour and enjoy.

contorni-002
Beautiful grilled vegetables in a trattoria in Trastevere, Rome, Italy.

When Mr T and I travel in Italy, we often order un primo piattto, usually a pasta, soup or risotto, which are generally vegetarian and often quite small, followed by a few different contorni and a salad for the main. As we don’t eat meat, and as good fish is not always readily available except in Sicily, this is our preferred main course. Years ago this ordering pattern raised a few eyebrows; now it is quite normal.

At home, a few plates of contorni make a perfect dinner, especially if you want to avoid the farinaceous approach to vegetarianism. Here are a few of our recent summer sides.

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Baked Nicola potatoes, lemon slices, olive oil, salt, whole garlic, smoked paprika

Contorno di Patate. Line a metal baking dish with baking paper, cut peeled potatoes into 1 cm slices. I use Nicola or Dutch cream potatoes (yellow fleshed potatoes) for flavour. Drizzle with good oil, dust with smoked pimenton, salt flakes and add a whole unpeeled garlic bulb. Bake at 180 for 45 minutes.

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Fresh borlotti beans, green beans, seasoning, olive oil, balsamic

Contorno di Fagioli Scritti e Verdi.  Beans in season. Cook fresh borlotti beans until soft but still with a little bite for around 20 minutes. Slice the green beans into small chunks, and cook to your liking. I don’t like them squeaky green as you can see. Mine are softish but not mushy: they match the texture of the borlotti. Mix in a serving bowl or platter, add salt and pepper, then your best olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Toss and serve warm or at room temperature.

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Grilled radicchio, olive oil, salt, garlic

Radicchio alla griglia. Loosen the leaves from a head of radicchio. Heat a ridged cast iron griddle on the gas top, and get it nice and hot before grilling the radicchio. Sprinkle with a little oil and salt as you go, and turn around with tongs. The leaves will wilt very quickly. Remove, add to your serving dish, grill some more leaves, adding a few drops of oil with each batch. Layer with crushed garlic as you go. This is my favourite way of eating radicchio. I’m looking forward to cooking cabbage and cavolo nero /Tuscan kale in this way in winter. My big black griddle lives permanently on the stove.

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Grilled zucchini, torn bocconcini, globe basil, oil, balsamic vinegar.

Good side dishes rely on delicate, well-balanced seasoning and dressings. Don’t skimp on good olive oil but go lightly with balsamic vinegar or lemon juice. A good Vincotto makes an excellent dressing for summer vegetables. Adding toasted nuts and seeds is a lovely trend. For an Italian touch, think toasted fennel seeds or pine nuts. Toasted left over sourdough bread, baked in the oven with olive oil and fennel seeds adds another delicious element. Cunza di pane, a crunchy Sicilian condiment, uses leftover bread, a very handy thing.

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Grilled eggplant, dressed with olive oil, vincotto, topped with sourdough breadcrumbs baked with fennel seeds, salt and garlic.

These are my modern takes on Italian contorni and every day we invent new versions. They are economical, healthy and fast to make, especially if you cook with the seasons, keep a herb garden and a pantry of interesting condiments.

Easy Cherry Frangipane Tart. Like a Version.

Those of you, dear friends, who have followed this blog for a while may remember the other versions of my easy frangipane tart. The summer apricot version is extremely popular with readers but the pear version is my favourite in late Autumn. Follow the seasons and try any fresh fruit you fancy.

The cherry rendition follows the same recipe but this time I have used a rectangular fluted baking tin, and added a cherry coulis. The pitting of cherries was a speedy exercise, thanks to a little research and Mr Tranquillo’s nimble hands. The best kitchen gadget for cherry pitting is a plain icing or piping tip- you just push the tip through one end of the cherry and out pops the pip. The alternative, but a little slower, is the pointed end of a chopstick. Magic tricks in the kitchen.

Torta di Mandorle, Ciliegie e Amaretto – Italian Almond and Cherry Tart with Amaretto.

Ingredients

  • 125 g softened unsalted butter
  •  150 g of castor sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 50 g plain flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 375 g almond meal
  • 2 Tablespoons Amaretto liqueur
  • 500 g or less of dark, ripe cherries, pitted.
  • 25 g flaked almonds

Method

Preheat oven to 180c /160c FF. Grease a 34 cm x 12 cm loose bottom rectangular tin. Grease and line base. Grease and flour sides. ( or use a 25 cm round loose bottomed tin as per original recipe links above)

Place butter and sugar and eggs in a mixer bowl and beat for 5 minutes until thick and pale. ( if the mixture curdles at this point, throw in a little of your pre-measured flour, or just don’t worry). Scrape down the sides as you go.

Stir in the flour mixed with the baking powder, then fold in the almond meal, followed by the Amaretto.  Pour into the prepared tin.

Press whole cherries into the almond batter.
Press whole cherries into the almond batter.

Arrange the cherries and press them into the batter so they are submerged. Scatter the top with the flaked almonds. You might not use all the cherries so reserve them for a coulis.

Scatter top with almond flakes then bake.
Scatter top with almond flakes then bake.

Bake for about 40 mins but check after 30 mins and move the tray around for even browning. Cool in tin, then remove to a flat serving platter.

In profile
In profile after baking

Cherry Coulis.

Using the remaining pitted cherries, halve them, put in a small saucepan with a little caster sugar, water and lemon juice. Cook gently for five minutes then puree in a blender. Strain if you like a fine coulis. If too runny, put the mixture back into the pan to reduce a little.

Cherry Frangipane with a little sifted icing sugar
Al fresco con una torta di mandorle e ciliegie.
Al fresco con una torta di mandorle e ciliegie.

Cafe Bellino and the Demise of the Local Italian Restaurant.

Hand crafted thin crusted pizza at Cafe Bellino, Brunswick.
Hand crafted thin crusted pizza at Cafe Bellino, Brunswick.

Dean Martin sings ‘Cha cha cha d’amour” in the background; locals drop in for a quick chat or a coffee, groups greet each other warmly with ‘auguri‘ or buona sera‘. Introductions are swift- meet Dino or Toni- as working men greet their friends and gather for an antipasto or a hearty bowl of pasta and a glass of rosso. Poking one’s head in to greet the chef at work in the semi open kitchen seems to be the norm. The style is distinctly Italo- Australiano and I feel very much at home here. Front of house is a charming young waiter from Milano, no doubt working on a 457 working visa, like so many other young Italian camerieri in Melbourne, and the pizzas are truly excellent, dare I say, the best I have had in a long while. At $13- $15 for a large hand crafted thinly crusted pizza, they are a steal.  But here’s the sad news. Cafe Bellino in Victoria Street, Brunswick has less than 90 days left to run! Like so many others in the district, the couple responsible for the excellent cooking here is about to retire. The signora is looking forward to spending time with her grandchildren: restaurant life is hard work, she explains. The young Milanese waiter hopes to be able to work for the new lessee, but no one really knows what kind of business will replace the beautiful little Cafe Bellino.

Young Italian Camerierie at Cafe Bellino, Brunswick
Italian Cameriere at Cafe Bellino, Brunswick

It’s a common story around the inner suburbs of Melbourne, as more Italian couples reach retirement age and sell up. A recent closure was Cafe Mingo in Sydney road, when Jo, his wife and helpers retired. Their simple Italian restaurant became home away from home for many. I loved the way that Jo would slide over a complimentary plate full of sweet wafers and a tall bottle of grappa at the end of a meal. Sweet memories. The place has since become an Indian restaurant. It’s always empty, there is no licence and no ambience. It has lost its soul. Last week when we dropped into La Bussola Ristorante e Pizzeria in Lygon Street east, we found that retirement had struck again! La Bussola, home of the simple pizza and cheap pasta, a warm retro space where you could bring your own wine or buy a caraffa di vino da tavola for $10, has become the Compass Pizza Bar. The emphasis is now on the word “bar” as this seems to be how the young Brunswick cafe managers make their money. It’s all about mark up and less about the food. We were ushered into the old retro space but shock horror, a head-phoned  DJ had been installed, playing extremely loud music at 6pm. We were told curtly that our BYO bottle was not welcome, and no, we couldn’t pay extra for corkage or glasses. We promptly left. Another wonderful family run institution had become gentrified and in my humble opinion, wrecked. Crap bottled wine, of unknown source and vintage, was offered at a starting price of $32 a bottle. Most were more costly.

Antipasto selections at Cafe Bellino.
Antipasto selections at Cafe Bellino.

The simple joy of stepping out for a pizza or a bowl of pasta with a shared a bottle of wine is quickly vanishing. I have nothing against licensed restaurants. Most of the old style BYO places hold full licences as well, offering the diner a choice. What disturbs me are the ridiculous mark ups on wine at these new hipster places. Take a bottle of ordinary wine that retails for $8 and mark it up to $35 or more. Why? Isn’t turnover and ‘bums on seats’ more important in these leaner times? Cheap, affordable wine, as well as BYO wine, has made the Melbourne suburban restaurant scene dynamic and lively in the past. These practices enabled families to regularly dine out at their local restaurant, introducing children to restaurant life and the culture of food. Simple places with prices to match. Hipster joints with their huge mark ups on wine will attract only one type of customer, young affluent singles and childless couples. A sad trend indeed, and one that would never happen in France!

If you’re in the area, footloose and fancy free or loitering with intent and in need of a drink, a coffee, or a bowl of something authentically Italian, try Cafe Bellino, 281 Victoria St, Brunswick VIC 3056. ( Just around the corner from Sydney Road). Open from 10 am to 10 pm. Closed on Sunday. You only have 80 days left.

Cha cha cha d’amour
Take this song to my lover
Shoo shoo little bird
Go and find my love

Cha cha cha d’amour
Serenade at her window
Shoo shoo little bird
Sing my song of love