Sweetening up Red Peppers – Peperoni in Agrodolce

I love red peppers, capsicum, or ‘peperoni’ as they are called in Italian.  (In American English the word ‘peperoni’ somehow came to mean a kind of salami, a salami to garnish pizza; I don’t know how that came about, linguistically speaking.)

What I do know is that peppers come into their own when Summer months make them abound in Mediterranean climates – but for decades now these formerly warm-weather vegetables are now available all year round.  I normally eschew vegetables that are out of season but give in to the impulse now and then.  Even so, I like to think that I am ‘canny’ and know that a red pepper this time of year will taste nothing like its relatives a few months down the road.  In other words, the out-of-season pepper needs a little bit of help.  Hence today’s recipe, which includes sugar and raisins.

INGREDIENTS: Red peppers, onions, peppercorns, raisins, sugar, white wine vinegar, pine kernels, fresh mint leaves

0Begin by soaking the raisins in some hot water – or even some sweet wine or sherry if you prefer.

1Slice the onions, shower with olive oil and add a few peppercorns (I love whole pepper, it always imparts a subtle taste that somehow makes the dish taste better).

2Turn on the heat, over a low flame, cover and cook.  I checked my clock and I cooked the onions for 15 minutes.

While the onions were stewing away, I got on with cutting the red peppers and slicing them into a match-stick or finger shape.

4Dribble olive oil over these too and cook, again, over a low flame.

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Here are the onions after 15 minutes of cooking time.

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Add the onions to the peppers.

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Time to add salt – I like to use the French sel de Guérande salt in most of my cooking. I like its ‘sweetness’.

8Don’t by shy with your salt.  If you look closely at this photo, you can see that I sprinkled quite a lot – but believe me, the end result was not at all salty, on the contrary.  Salt is a miracle of an ingredient: it draws out the taste from the food in question.  No salt, no taste.

9I cooked the onions and peppers for another few minutes, until I liked the consistency of the peppers.  There is no ‘crunch’ to them.  They have to have a bit of ‘bite’ to them, naturally, otherwise they would lose their appeal.  But at the same time, this ‘bite’ is a silky mellow one.  Turn the heat off.

10This photo looks like something out of a space ship, very weird, I know.  But what it is, is a few teaspoons of sugar drowning in some white vinegar.

11I then transferred the sugar and vinegar to a teensy pot and brought it to the boil.  I deftly tasted the vinegar and it was far too ‘vinegary’ with the amount of sugar I had imagined would suffice, so had to had double !  And here is a rule that always obtains in the kitchen: always taste taste taste.  The vinegar is ready when it becomes pleasantly sweet.  The phone rang just at that point and off I went, glass of wine in hand (it was definitely “wine o’clock” by then) to put the world to rights with one of my sisters living in England.  Talk talk talk, sip, banter banter banter, sip, this that and the other, sip, oh my goodness it’s getting late must dash, final sip from the wine glass. Love you loads, bye bye.

12Back to the kitchen and using a wooden spoon I laid out the peppers and onions like a wreath.  The puddle you see in the middle are the juices of the peppers and onions, coupled with the olive oil.

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This was just before I poured the sugared vinegar into the puddle in the middle.  It looks like a glassful, wouldn’t you say?

14I turned the heat on again, and now added the drained raisins.   There is always something celebratory about raisins, I don’t why, don’t you think?

15Toasted a handful of pine kernels (be careful when doing so, they are ‘treacherous’, they can burn in an instant, so do keep a beady eye on them).

16And voilà, ta daaa ! The finished dish.  Switch the heat off.  And serve at room temperature.

I actually served it the following day and it was much appreciated I am glad to say.

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Add fresh mint leaves just before serving.  The mint and sugar vinegariness combine beautifully with the caramelised onions and the slowly stewed peppers.

18And the olive oil, naturally, does its part too.  As you can see, the oil drops to the bottom of the dish together with the juices and the person can choose just how much to drizzle over the veggies.  If, like me, you can’t get enough of Italian bread and adore the naughty ‘thing’ of mopping up a sauce with morsels of said bread (etiquette says it’s a no-no but we all do it, it’s called “fare la scarpetta” – making a little shoe), this dish could be truly dangerous.

Enjoy!

P.S. Read all about “making the shoe” in the post I wrote a while ago on the subject:

https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2010/12/21/don’t-poo-poo-the-shoe/

 

 

Prelude to a Recipe : Nonno’s Birthday Bonanza (Pasta with Coda alla Vaccinara Sauce)

 

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My mother in law Maria hails from a small hilltop town in the Marche called Monterubbiano.

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When my father in law retired, he bought a house there which became the Summer Holiday go-to venue for me and my husband and our kids for several years in succession.

There comes a point in children’s lives when they feel it’s no longer ‘cool’ to spend holidays with their parents and sure enough, that happened with us too.  Even so, Monterubbiano maintains an iconic status in the vault of family memories, and always will do.  So many outdoor dinners, friends and family gatherings, laughter and silliness and looking forward to future frolicking.

My in-laws leave Rome some time in May and stay in Monterubbiano until early September, sometimes very late August when the weather there can change sooner than it does in sunny Rome.  Monterubbiano can get very ‘foggy’ in no time at all, even during the Summer, not to mention unseasonably chilly.   It is close to a mountain range, after all.

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Il fumo della PioggiaThe view from our bedroom early one September morning … foggy.  When our daughter was little she used to call it “il fumo della pioggia”, the smoke of the rain.

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Monterubbiano’s signature food dish is the “tagliatelle fritte”.  These are fettuccine cooked and seasoned with a bechamel and cheese sauce, then shaped into a ball, breaded and fried.  They are served with a tomato sauce.  One ball per person is enough, let me tell you, they are indeed very ‘rich’ !

My husband and I adore the sea and there was no way we would have spent so many weeks in Monterubbiano, Summer after Summer, if it wasn’t within easy access to the sea.  It is a twenty minute drive away from the town of Porto San Giorgio.  An Italian singer called Piero Focaccia came out with a song in 1963 that says, “For this year, don’t change, stick to the same beach, to the same sea, and come back to me” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qvaCyff7Jn4).  This attachment to “sameness” is a concept that non-Italians will perhaps find difficult to appreciate but is a way of life that is deeply imbedded in the culture (or was rather, things change, even in Italy.)  When my daugher was just one year old, we sought a beach that was relatively “quiet” and off the beaten track, not too crowded etc.  When I say beach, I mean a beach with with the usual frills and accommodation that are a staple in Italy: sun beds, sun umbrella, drinks and a loo/rest room (facilities that make life very civilised to my mind).  They call them “chalets” there, just as one has chalets up in the mountains.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, we espied one of these chalets just opposite a convent and that did it for us. Some of these chalets can be very ‘cool’ places for young people to throng about, as they strut their stuff and put music on and generally do what young people enjoying life do: make a lot of noise, laughing and joking, smoking and canoodling.  We presumed that no young person worth his or her salt would be seen dead within walking distance of a convent and we were right.  This was a family place, with not just parents but grandparents too.   The gamut of generations ran from nappies to bikinis to sun-dresses and included a forgiving attitude towards bulge, fleshy flab, deeply lined facial expressions, paunches, stretch marks, and many a leg heavily laden with varicose veins. Perfect.

It is still called “Bagni Giuliana”. The owners, husband Cavicchi and wife Giuliana, were so accommodating and pleasant and kind that we returned to them the following year.  And the one after that. And then the one after that one too. In other words, we never changed our chalet and the writer of that song would be proud of us.  We are welcomed like family when we return, they have literally seen our children (and their friends when they came with us) grow up.  And we, unfortunately, have seen Mum and Dad die, although we are pleased that their two daughters continue to run the place (which was thoroughly modernised about 20 years ago).  The pull of the familiar can never be underestimated.

Anyway, as life cracks on for my mother in law, her body has begun to show cracks of its own.  Two knee replacement operations make it hard for her to walk properly now but the real reason for this unsteadiness is that Alzheimer’s started its unwelcome inroads on her health.  She is ever more forgetful now, and often gets confused, or tells a story over and over again.  Fortunately, she continues to be a good story teller, and her innate kindness, sense of wonderment and impish naughtiness (her motto? “God save us from the virtuous” – Dio ci salvi dai virtuosi … ) continue to attract young people to her.  She may not have been the best home cook in the world but she certainly was a jolly good one and that’s where the sadness sets in.  Basically, she cooks no more, and I know that my father in law suffers for this.  Not that he would ever complain, he is too proud.  That generation never would – their complaints are lodged in other fields of human interaction.  He makes do, buying nice cheeses and cold cuts, and making a basic pasta for himself.  Or buying ready-cooked veggies and  rotisserie chicken.  He won’t die of hunger, oh no.  But he, like me!, lives for his food, for a decent meal and it must hurt so much not to be able to enjoy a ‘decent’ home cooked meal on a daily basis.  Especially since he spent all his life with his wife making him one.

Dear Reader, I can’t tell you what pleasure it was for me to cook a decent meal for him when we went to visit them last Summer in Monterubbiano.  It gives me so much satisfaction, the kind that only another home cook will understand.  It’s all about making people happy, even if a grunt is all you’ll get out of them on occasion.  It’s about the joy of seeing someone reach out for another helping, just a small one, and then another, again – just a small one.  Of seeing them studiously mop up the sauce on their plates with a bit of bread. Oh hearing them sigh and exclaim that they couldn’t possibly eat another thing, they’ve eaten so much already (true, very true). And then seeing them fall asleep, head nodding, on the sofa as they pretend to watch a bit of telly afterwards.   Of their face when you ‘force’ leftovers on them to take home in batches of plastic containers that you’ll never see again (who cares!).  Eating is all about evanescence.  A lot of work and trouble growing/making food and then pouff! it’s gone in a few moments in the eating.  The pleasure principle of it all.  A huge big fat Zen lesson there, surely?

Anyway, last Summer we visited Maria and Giose on a number of occasions, all of them poignant for the above and other reasons.  One of Maria’s best friends there, Liliana, is a brilliant cook and organises mega dinners for the town al fresco.  All the proceeds go towards the upkeep of the local football team.  If you have the time, I’d like for you to watch a wee video I took of a dinner she organised.  Plastic plates and plonk for wine, but really good food I tell you!  All for the magic price of Eu 10 per person.  With a local live band.  The guy playing the trumpet? Enzo.  Always cracking jokes.  He is the retired owner of the town’s only grocery shop and played a surprise Serenade for me and my husband the year we got married with a bunch of other musicians at around 2 a.m.  The much appreciated serenading was followed up by sandwiches and jugs of wine and hearty snacks all organized by my in laws.  The lady with the walking stick is my mother in law, Maria, being escorted by my husband, her son, Pino.

 

We returned one last time early in September, in time to celebrate my father in law’s birthday.

My birthday present to him?

Lots and lots of sauce for making pasta.  And the sauce in question was made from the Coda alla Vaccinara recipe.  I’ll write about it in the very next blog.

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Apple, Pork and Cabbage Combo

I sometimes jokingly define myself as a vegetarian who eats a lot of meat.  By that I mean that I am an omnivore and enjoy my meat and fish  but really do do do absolutely adore my veggies and can’t contemplate a meal without them.

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There are always a minimum of two side dishes (“contorni”) at our main meal and very often three.  I like my herbs too, can’t cook without them (fresh herbs I mean).  The one  vegetable I don’t go crazy over is cauliflower (always needs some kind of “tszuj-ing” or tweaking, i.e. never good enough on its own) and the other is cabbage, even though I eat  both of them.   The recent trend of roasting cauliflower and cabbage has been a great boon for the palate.

I have heard it said that mirrors are the aspirin of Feng Shui tools when the need arises to redress the state of a room and funds aren’t available for a total refurnishment.  Well, in my culinary book, the ‘aspirin’ that will amp up any unexciting vegetable is pork based: sausage, pancetta or ‘guanciale’, pork jowl.   I got it into my head the other day that since apple sauce goes very well with pork, wouldn’t it be a good idea to attempt a cabbage dish that included both?  And here is the result.  It’s nothing to write home about as recipes go, we are talking about something very simple and homey.  But sometimes ‘simple’ and ‘homey’ hit the spot.

Ingredients: cabbage, olive oil, onions, coriander seeds, a wedge of lemon, guanciale

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Above is the cabbage that I washed and trimmed.

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Start by gently browning a chopped onion in plenty of olive oil. Then add the quarters of a couple of apples after peeling and coring them.  Those little dark round things in the photo are coriander seeds, Italian grown ones, which are darker than one usually finds.

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A good pinch of salt is always the best companion to any recipe.

4Now add the cabbage and a wedge of lemon for fragrance.

Stir the saucepan a bit, so that the cabbage gets coated with the olive oil and cook over a low heat with the lid on, for as long as it takes for the cabbage to wilt.

While it’s wilting/cooking away, chop some guanciale (or pancetta if you can’t guanciale) and then add it to the pan.  Now that I think about it, however, it would be a better idea to cook the guanciale at the initial stage, with the onion.  Well, this was an experiment after all.

7Remove the lid.  As you can see, the apple has softened but hasn’t fallen apart (fortunately).

8Keep cooking and tasting until you consider it finished.

9And serve ! (Remove the lemon before serving.)  If you like, you could add freshly milled pepper or chilli flakes.

I enjoyed it enough to want to make it again.  But then I am a homey kinda gal sometimes.

PS If you are vegetarian or vegan, this still works only without the pork, naturally.

A Sultry Sicilian Sunday Lunch, Stefania Barzini Style

Question: how many people still ‘do’ Sunday lunch these days? Meaning, as the high point of the gastronomic week, as the family get-together nexus, as the excuse to invite good friends for a slow-paced convivial experience?

Culturally speaking, I associate this ‘special’ Sunday meal with the rightly famous British Sunday Roast and with the Italian “Pranzo della Domenica”.  Meaning, question again, was the Sunday lunch a big deal in other countries too? I’ve not heard of it being celebrated in North America, or France or Spain or the Netherlands, Scandinavia or Germany/Austria/Switzerland or Eastern Europe – but of course that’s not to mean that it does not exist in these geographical parts, simply that I’ve not heard about it.

So far as my family is concerned, this was never a tradition chez nous.  I’m of maverick stock.  So no one would say that I am an ardent proponent of the Sunday luncheon.  That said, it’s primarily because it means having to prepare much of the meal the day before, and wake up at the crack of dawn on the day to get everything done spit-spot.  It’s the timing that’s tiring for me.  Drinking wine is most definitely part and parcel of the pranzo della domenica and then what happens, eh?, I ask you?  One gets sleepy and yearns to catch forty winks – what better way to book-end the experience than a Sunday nap?  But if one is with friends, or not in one’s own home, this is not an option and it becomes hard work staving off the droopy eyelids despite the copious cups of post prandial coffee.  Sigh.  I get woozy after a boozy dinner too but going to bed is the natural next step and falling asleep is simply bliss.  So, yes, these are just some of the reasons why I prefer a dinner on the whole.

They say that the mundane is to be cherished.  True.  How much more, then, should a ‘special’ occasion be appreciated !  It stands to reason.  Which is why I heartily accepted an invitation to Stefania Barzini’s for Sunday lunch the other day.  This was not the first time I had enjoyed a Sicilian menu cooked by her and her friend Paolo Colombo (if you have not heard about Stefania, you can read all about her in this piece I wrote: https://frascaticookingthatsamore.wordpress.com/2016/11/23/kale-crostini-by-stefania-barzini/).

Another attraction (well, for me at least) is that because the invitation is open to people who are interested in a top-notch home-cooked meal presented in the chef’s own home, you never know who you are going to meet.  Some are friends of Stefania’s, some are acquaintances, and others are complete newcomers.  The atmosphere is one of a hail-fellow-well-met welcome, sit yourself down, and eat and drink.  Very little fuss, people are supposed to cooperate.  They are expected to mix and mingle as Stefania and Paola see to the finishing touches and bring in the food, course upon course.

Since, on the whole, it is mostly I who do the cooking for dinner parties, on top of the mundande-to-be-cherished daily meals, I confess that not having to lift a finger (other than to eat) for a change is  a feeling I embraced to the hilt.  I felt so spoilt.  My delightful daughter who loves Sunday lunches (as well as all things Sicilian) decided to join me and that was an added and unexpected bonus.   I love Stefania and her husband’s home, not to mention the kitchen!, it seems made for this kind of entertaining.

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Stefani’as kitchen before the onslaught of the guests.

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I served some fantastic just-fried saffron-steeped rice balls as an ice-breaker to a group of people sitting on the sofas around the large coffee table.  “Since you are all too shy to be the first to grab one, I shall pass the plate around,” I said encouragingly.  No further chivvying was required after that – we all partook with a vengeance of whatever was put before us as nibbles before sitting at the tables for the main courses.

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Oh this citrus-buttressed chicken liver paté … I couldn’t get enough of it.

 

There was also a large platter of cured meats from Sicily (silly me, didn’t take any photos) as well as home-cured olives and pepper flecked cheese from the Nebrodi region of Sicily.  Nibbles galore.

4And then, once seated at the table(s), we were served our pasta course.  Ravioli stuffed with fresh ricotta and dressed with a mint and sage sauce.  A sprinkling of pecorino cheese.

6And were they good?  Is the pope catholic ….?  No, seriously.  They were excellent.  The texture of the home-made pasta was incredble, it was as silky as the ricotta stuffing.  The flavour was of course a savoury one but there was just a hint of sweetness that the mint and sage offset beautifully.  Very more-ish indeed.

7The pièce de résistance … the brioche salata, or “brioscia”.  A pie named after the French brioche, I presume.  This, as well as the other recipes, were all from Fabrizia Tasca Lanza’s repertoire, for which Stefania was most grateful, as were we.

8By the time the ‘brioscia’ arrived on our table, I was feeling pretty much full.  It is a very rich dish, sumptuous.  It was served with an intriguing lentil dish.

9It may not look like much but these lentils were super.  They were cooked with an orange and a lemon, and dressed with olive oil, lemon juice, a little bit of chilli and fresh mint.  It’s definitely a recipe I want to incorporate in my repertoire.

8aThe bottom of the brioscia was slightly burned but no matter.

And then came the dessert.  Two desserts.

12A superb cassata.

12aThis was my helping, I simply couldn’t eat any more but I can tell you – it was really delicious.  And I’m not usually a great pudding eater.

And here is the tangerine ‘gelo’ – il gelo di mandarino.

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10aA gelo is a bit like a jelly in consistency.  The tangerine flavour coupled with the pistachio (and don’t the colours pair well too!) was intensely satisfying.  And it ‘cleaned’ the palate, so to speak.

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It was definitely time for coffee.  What a meal!

13Here is a lovely photo of Paola, Stefania’s friend and co-host.  And no, I didn’t take any photos of Stefania.  Normally I’m the one taking photos of everything and everyone but today I was just relaxing and involved in the various conversations.  What’s a Sunday lunch about after all!

The photo of Stefania below, and a few of the above, were taken by Stefania’s friend Donatella Monachesi.

14Stefania looking after her guests.

15And this one is of Donatella holding forth and intriguing us all with her witty conversation.

The lunch was followed  by a viewing of a documentary all about Sicilian food traditions. I had to miss this opportunity because it was time to go home for me.

 

 

Pasta Alfredo Frascati Style

The thing about Pasta Alfredo is that it is basically well known only outside of Rome and especially in North America.  There are two restaurants in central Rome that that can lay claim to the origin of this recipe and it became famous because famous foreigners got to enjoy it, including early Hollywood film stars.  If you have a little gander around google you will encounter scores of articles to enlighten and amuse you.  If you haven’t got the time or patience, I would advise you to click on the link below for an excellent article and video on the history and the recipe written by Elizabeth Minchilli.

For my part, I can say that most Romans – if they are going to make a simple butter and parmesan pasta at all – will not use fresh pasta (fettuccine) but dry pasta instead.  The recipe is sometimes dubbed as the dish that is made for the man whose wife cheats on him (“la pasta del cornuto”); having squandered her time away from the kitchen in pursuit of forbidden pleasure and frippery, she will not have the requisite time to prepare a ‘proper’ pasta sauce.  What else can a poor unfaithful wife do but resort to a quick and easy “pasta burro e parmigiano” that she can prepare in no time at all?  As if.  Anyway, I got a craving for this dish when I was pregnant the first time – so it was very amusing for me to discover that the original chef Alfredo who ‘invented’ this concoction did so in order to improve the appetite of his pregnant wife!  There you go.  Nothing to do with being unfaithful whatsoever.  Also, it is the pasta to make after one has been ill for whatever reason.  “La pasta in bianco” it is called (white pasta) and sometimes olive oil will be substituted for the butter.  In Umbria they call it the Englishman’s pasta. I wrote a post about this some years ago: https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2014/03/02/english-pasta-spaghetti-burro-e-parmigiano/.

But back to today and the new pasta Alfredo I want to tell you about.

The Alfredo in question is Alfredo Minardi Baldoni who runs his family’s nine-generation vineyard and olive farm near Frascati.  The vineyard and farm house/cellar couldn’t be prettier and more picturesque, with breathtaking views of the rolling hills of the Castelli Romani area, the peak of the ancient town of Tusculum,  the town of Monteporzio, as well as the hills north of Rome and the seashore to the left.

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I have been collaborating with Alfredo and his tours and wine tasting since last September, and our conversations are always about the history (and a bit of gossip) of where we live, wine (naturally!), olive oil and food.  It didn’t take me long to discover that he likes his nosh, has a fine palate and is a dab hand in the kitchen.

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I was telling him about that incredible pasta sauce I had enjoyed in Tuscany back in October, consisting of only three ingredients: sausages, mascarpone, and parmesan cheese (salt and pepper too). When we were discussing what two pasta dishes to offer our guests one Sunday, we decided go for a traditional Roman dish (Amatriciana) and to do a take on the famous (or infamous considering the ‘heavy’ ingredients) of the sausage-mascarpone-parmigiano recipe.  And this is the result.

“What are we going to call this dish?” I asked him, minutes before serving the guests? He started prattling on about the ingredients and I shook my head.  “No, we shall call this dish Pasta Minardi, after the vineyard!”  I can take no credit for the tweak on the trio of ingredients, the ideas were all Alfredo’s (except maybe for the addition of mint).  And hence, some time later, I reckoned it was a good idea to name this dish “Pasta Alfredo Frascati Style”.

INGREDIENTS

Italian sausagues, mascarpone, freshly grated parmesan cheese.

A handful of almonds, a glass of white wine (Frascati naturally!), some olive oil and as much or as little garlic as you prefer.

METHOD

Use a knife to finely chop the sausages after having skinned them.  Then brown the garlic in the olive oil, taking care not to actually ‘brown’ them.  They ought to be a golden colour. Remove the garlic afterwards (or keep it in the sauce, if you like it).

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Add the chopped sausage to the pan and use a wooden spoon or spatula to break it up as much as possible. Careful not to overcook the meat otherwise it will tend to go all hard and chewy.

You can slice the almonds with a knife or you can do what I did.  I covered them with parchment paper and used a meat pounder to crush them.

When the meat has just stopped turning pink, pour a glass of white wine into the pan (not directly on the meat) and turn the heat up to let the alcohol evaporate.

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Now add the almonds.  Stir.

The meat looks really ‘brown’ in the above photo but that’s not what it looked like in real life.  Anyway, I added 4 tablespoons of mascarpone and mixed it in.  I then added a fifth tablespoon to loosen up the sauce somewhat.  I tasted it (delicious already!) and added a little bit of salt.  Pepper (freshly milled) I always add at the end.

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The pasta was boiling away (doesn’t look like it in this photo, I know). I used roughly 700g of pasta.

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I transferred the sauce to a larger pan.  A pan that I would use to finish off the pasta.  At this point I added a few teensy mint leaves that I found on my balcony.  Dried  mint can work too, I suppose.

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The pasta was almost ready, so I turned the heat on.

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I had added some pasta water to the previous pan, to soak up whatever got left behind. I poured this into the new pan and then drained the pasta directly into the pan.

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Here I am finishing off the pasta in the pan, adding more pasta water (as needed) and tossing and or stirring the pasta.

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Pepper and parmesan last.  Give it a good stir and serve.

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A lovely wintry recipe,  my appreciative guests commented as they enjoyed Pasta Alfredo Frascati Style a few evenings ago.

I should think so so too.  This might not grow hair on your chest, but you will find yourself breathing better as you savour the richness of the texture, the crunch of the almonds, the saving grace of a faint hint of mint and the rounding off of a parmesan-mascarpone finish.

http://www.elizabethminchilli.com/2017/02/how-to-make-fettuccine-alfredo-video/

Ribbons of Delight – Le Frappe di Carnevale

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“It’s still Christmas in Frascati,” I thought to myself as I walked home last night.  The fairy lights that had been put up back in November by the town’s famous café, the Bar Belvedere (or Bar Brega), were still twinkling away most fetchingly. (And by the by, Bar Brega is famous for its top notch ice cream should you ever venture to these parts).

Opposite the café, looking somewhat forlorn, still gleamed the minimalist garland decoration on a Christmas tree.  But hey ho let’s not knock it too much,  stripes of light continued to shine from the tree and brighten up a Winter’s evening.

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Is it too late to wish everyone a Happy New Year? It’s still  January, so I am hoping it is not.

Not that January is most people’s favourite month of the year, not unless one likes skiing or skating.  Hunkering down with hot drinks or wine in front of an open fire or in an otherwise warmed-up cheery surrounding (candles anyone?) can of course be very romantic and soul soothing, as can reading a book all tucked up on a sofa, or watching a rerun of a much loved TV series.  Winter slows us down and so it should. We are mammals after all and a lot of mammals go into hibernation wherever the colder climes are meteorologically normal for this time of year (we won’t mention climate change).  I read somewhere that our metabolism tends to slow down in Winter which is a good excuse for us to put on some more weight and blame it on biology.

All this to say that I do indeed see why a crisp Winter’s day or a cosy evening indoors can be most enjoyable and atavistically rooted even in our biology.  It’s just that January, following weeks of festivities starting with Thanksgiving in the USA and ending with New Year’s Eve for most of the rest of the world,  starts off with expectations and a bang and then degenerates somewhat into either a lull or downright despondency.   Have you ever heard of anyone enthusiastically exclaiming “Yay! I can’t wait for January!” ???  I thought so.  Rhetorical question.

In Italy, some holidays based on ancient Roman tradition, on the Church and its cohorts of saints do a good job of keeping people’s pecker up.  The last Christmas holy day of 6th January (Twelfth Night as it is known in English) is officially called “l’epifania” (Epiphany) and celebrates the occasion of the Three Kings presenting baby Jesus with precious gifts.  Until the 1960s all Italian children received their Christmas gifts on this day, and not on the 24th or 25th December.  The presents were brought by a somewhat witchy crone, called “La Befana”, who steals into people’s houses in the thick of the night, riding on a broom and wearing stockings that are in dire need of darning.  She delivers nice presents to ‘good’ children and charcoal to those who have been deemed naughty.  La Befana is quite spooky and pretty ugly if you’ll excuse the oxymoron.   Should someone call you a Befana, please understand that it is definitely not a compliment   (Very odd indeed, this Befana figure, a little reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Macbeth witches, all be she much more benign).  The Epiphany, Twelfth Night, comes to put an end to festivities.  “L’epifania tutte le feste porta via” goes the proverb.  And we are supposed to feel … what? Recharged? Raring to get on with the new year? Sigh.

Thank goodness that the celebration of Carnevale (carnival) follows on fairly quickly after January  6th, usually within a few weeks.  And with Carnevale comes the season for lots and lots of regionally typical sweets and biscuits and what have you to cheer us up (so many of them are fried in hot oil these days, in lard way back when, some decades ago).  The root of the term must surely come from the Latin “adieu to meat” (carnis = meat, and Vale is Latin for farewell) but the requisite fasting for Lent isn’t enforced until Carnevale comes to an end, and that is on Ash Wednesday.  This year it’s going to fall on St Valentine’s day, oops!  What are people to do?  I reckon some poetic licence will have be called upon this year, so as to kick off the Lenten season exceptionally on a Thursday.  At any rate, let us enjoy what Carnevale can offer us by way of a fried almost cracker-like sweet called a “frappa” in the singular, and “frappe” in the plural.  (That’s what they called here and in Rome.  In other parts of Italy they are known as “chiacchiere”, pronounced “kee-yak-kyay-ray”).

I got the recipe from my next door neighbour, Rossella.  It’s from Ada Boni’s book, “Il Talismano della Felicità”.  I never got around to buying a copy for myself because my mother has promised me hers, which was given to her circa 1952.

INGREDIENTS

500g flour

30g lard (I didn’thave any so used butter instead)

2 egg yolks

1 whole egg

1 tablespoon sugar and 1 pinch of salt

White wine (Ada Boni didn’t mention how much was required, so you are going to have to make this up as you go along)

Groundnut/peanut oil for frying

Icing sugar (powdered sugar)

The idea is to make a dough using the flour, eggs, salt and sugar and add enough wine as is needed.  I thought 1 glass would do the job  but it wasn’t enough, so I added some rum (I had run out of wine would you believe ! horror upon horror, almost unheard of in this family.)  I placed all the ingredients in a processor and blended them, adding the wine/rum last.  The dough then has to rest, for half an hour or so.

That’s the butter on the left.  Flour, wine and eggs on the right (ignore the baked apples in the dish).

And the addition of the butter, the egg yolks and the whole egg, pinch of sugar and spoonful of sugar.

I whizzed away but the dough was too crumbly after adding the glass of wine, so had to add the rum.

Now we were talking! The consistency of the dough was just right (moist but not too sticky) and I shaped it into a ball and covered it with clingfilm (saran wrap/glad wrap …. how many names for this film of see-through plastic !).  Let the dough rest for about half an hour.

Then let the rolling begin.  Dust the surface with plenty of flour before you start with the rolling pin.  The dough has to be stretched/rolled out to the same sort of thickness as when you are  making fresh pasta.  Fairly thin, less than half an inch say.

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A very useful gadget …. a wheel that rolls and cuts.  If you haven’t got one never mind, just use a knife.

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Wheeeee. Roll and cut, roll and cut, roll and cut.

13aFry the frappe in plenty of hot groundnut oil or other vegetable oil of your choice (although I don’t  advise you use other vegetable oils, except for olive oil, because the smoke point is much lower and hence not at all healthy for us).  The ribbon of delight will puff up and present some ‘bubbles’ as it fries.

14See?  Drain and set aside on some kitchen paper to absorb any oil there might be (fortunately, there was hardly any).

15Since this is the season for snow, add plenty of sugary snow (icing sugar/powdered sugar) to the frappe.  Make sure there is a real avalanche of sweetness.  Some of the sugar falls off, in any case, when you go to pick up the frappa with your eager hands.

15aI fried half the amount of dough after having attempted to bake the other half of the frappe in the oven.  People swear that frappe baked in the oven are just as good as fried ones.  As a fried-food-fanatic (FFF) I can only say that I strongly disagree with them.  If you are going to be naughty and eat sugary foods in the first place, you may as well go the whole hog and eat them the way they are supposed to be cooked, and that is fried. Half-baked solace is no solace at all, say I.

Buon anno! Happy New Year!

Matriciana Tweak and Tip(s)

Whether you want to call it Amatriciana or, as the Romans usually do, simply and laconically “Matriciana”, one rule obtains: it is all about the ingredients.  For reasons of blogosphere self-preservation, I will refrain from getting into the ‘origins’ of the ‘real’ A/Matriciana  because I haven’t the time just now, it being a hornet’s nest of  a topic and best left for another occasion.   The subject of a true A/Matriciana ignites fiery Pasta Policing and wars.  However, I can pacifically attest to the following: a Roman Matriciana concedes the inclusion of onions (which I don’t usually bother with) and a splash of wine – again, something I don’t bother with, although I did this time with the recipe I am outlining below.

When making this particular Matriciana, it was Charles Scicolone who came to mind.  We were having a jolly nice lunch together with his wife Michele and our friend Michelle Smith earlier this year at the now Michelin-starred restaurant called “Da Sora Maria e Arcangelo” (Michele, Michelle and Michelin … all these Miches !) in Olevano Romano.  Charles ordered a Matriciana, one of his favourite pastas.  He said he liked it well enough … and the pasta itself was fresh and home-made … but there was an unsaid ‘but’ hovering in the conversation and eventually he spilled the beans.

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But, he told us, the amatriciana he had just eaten was not as good as the one he had enjoyed some time previously at the Casale del Giglio wine estate.  The reason?  He preferred his guanciale to be crisp.

Now, as a rule, there is no mention of the A/matriciana’s guanciale having to be crisp (the same goes for a carbonara) but I ‘got’ what he meant, I like it that way too (my daughter, instead, doesn’t … she prefers it to be softer on the palate).  So the “tweak” in the title refers to the guanciale being crisp.

The “tip” instead is something of my own making, which I think makes a lot of sense.  I hope to persuade you of its usefulness, in a waste-not-want-not sort of way.

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Are you ready?

It all begins with putting the water onto the boil, and then trimming the guanciale (the cured pork jowl).

3aInstead of throwing away these trimmings, also known as “cotiche” in Italian, once boiled, they can be used to flavour many another good dish (such as pasta e fagioli for instance).  I also had the notion that these trimmings might impart another edge of ‘flavour’ to the cooking water of the pasta.  There is no need to wait for the water to come to the boil: you can add the trimmings of the guanciale (i.e. the exterior lining/edge that is not normally eaten and all too often thrown away) straight away.

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My guanciale slices, now without trimmings, had been sliced a little too thickly so I decided to give them a pounding to flatten them a bit.

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Ah, that’s more like it.  The guanciale now needed to be sliced into a matchstick shape.

3If you can, try and cut the guanciale matchstick so that there is a piece of the meat encased by fat at both ends (i.e. meat in the middle, fat on the outside).

4So, while the water is doing what it’s supposed to do and not requiring any attention just yet, we can carry on with cooking the guanciale matchsticks.  The guanciale is full of good fat, so let it cook over a low heat in order let its fat ‘render’ – i.e. let the fat ooze out into the pan.  As in the photo above. The photo above contains about 2/3 of the total guanciale.

5The remaining 1/3 of guanciale is left to render in another saucepan, a teensy weensy one.

61.jpgHere are the two saucepans.

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I poured some white wine into the large saucepan and turned up the heat.  As you can see, below, the guanciale is cooked but not ‘crisp’ as such.  This guanciale is what is going to make the matriciana sauce taste good!

Once the wine had evaporated, I added a little bit of olive oil and a small amount of chilli, for a bit of spice.

1112And once the smaller saucepan’s guanciale cooks to a crispy consistency, remove and set aside.  Transfer the fat that has rendered in that teensy pan into the larger pan.

It’s actually easier to do all this than it is to give instructions !

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Add fresh or tinned plum tomatoes to the saucepan and let it cook down.  Add salt and even a bit of sugar if necessary.13Okay, so now we can remove the cooked guanciale trimmings from the boiling water and allow them to cool.

13bOnce cooled, they can be placed in the freezer to be enjoyed at some point in the future. But back to our Matriciana.

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Okay so the water has come to the proverbial rolling boil and is looking pretty oily, in a good way!, all that fat.  All that is called for now is the required amount of coarse sea salt (roughly 10g per litre of water is the rule of thumb).  Add your pasta and we’re nearly there.

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Grate plenty of pecorino romano.

16When cooked all dente, drain the pasta (spaghetti in this case,  bucatini are also very common in Rome) directly into the saucepan … turn the heat up and add a little bit of the cooking water.  You know the drill.  And no bits of green, please! No guilding this lily with basil or parsley or mint.  Just unadulterated matriciana sauce.  This is not supposed to be a ‘light’ sauce.  It’s supposed to keep you company all afternoon as  you let your body lingeringly digest it.

18A snowfall of pecorino over the pasta and last but not least … the crispy guanciale on the very top.

17And if anyone should object to the guanciale being crisp, he or she can just put the offending pieces to one side of the plate.

19It’s making me hungry just looking at it.