Kaling the Cod – Baccalà with Cavolo Nero and an Oriental Crisp Factor

I suppose this is a story of how thrift can contribiute to creativity.

I was clearing up a small store cupboard a few weeks ago and came across a half finished box of Kroepoek – Kroepoek is the original Asian snack made from fresh shrimps and tapioca flour. It is deep fried the way pappadums are, and kroepoek (pronounced “crew-pook, with pook rhyming with book – isn’t that correct Stefan?) look like tiny pappadums now that I think of it, and take no time at all to fry.  I had bought the box back in January and had served them for an Asian themed family dinner, and fond though the memory of that evening was, I had also to deal with a gnawing sense of nostalgia creeping into my veins. I hate it when that happens.  Once I finished frying them and had eaten a few, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with the rest of them.   I just didn’t have the heart to throw them away, so stuck them in the oven to deal with the next day.1Here are the fried kroepoek …
2 The next day I also had to deal with some tomatoes that were very pretty, yes, but that were also getting perilously close to losing their freshness.15And I had bought some salt cod that morning.  Baccalà.


And I had also bought some kale – cavolo nero or cavolaccio.

I posed myself a little culinary challenge – how could I come up with a dish using all these ingredients?

I began with the tomatoes and started making a very plain salsa di pomodoro.

3 I roughly cut up the tomatoes and let them simmer over a medium and then low heat until they fell apart – about 15 minutes.4 I used some tongs to get rid of the skins, and got rid of them.5 I then dribbled a good bit of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt … 6 I tasted the salsa/sugo and it was sweet enough, it did not need any sugar.  I added some fresh basil leaves.  I continued to let the salsa simmer for about another five minutes and then switched off the heat.7 At that point, I added a spoonful of butter and put the salsa aside.
9a I poured some olive oil into a nice big frying pan and added a handful of guanciale (cured pork jowl) and then a little bit of garlic.10 After a few minutes this is what you get …11 And this is when it’s time to add the kale … be careful! It splutters.  Best to add the kale a little at a time …12 The kale wilts almost immediately.13 Cook for a few minutes and then add some white wine.  Sprinkle a little bit of salt, put the lid on the pan and cook until the kale is tender.14 And here is what you end up with.  Set aside.15 Here is the baccalà, with its skin on.16 It’s not that hard to trim the baccalà of its oily skin.17 I suppose one could do something intelligent with the skin but the only thing I could think of that evening was to throw it away (I don’t have a cat either).18 I cut the baccalà into cubes.  The fish on the right hand side of this photo? I stored it in the freezer for future use.19 I now placed a few slices of lardo into the frying pan, together with some rosemary sprigs.20 Turn the heat on … I let the lard cook without any olive oil at first and then added it: the lard renders into the olive oil, and the rosemary infuses this delicious fat component.   While this has going on ….21 I used the kale to cover the bottom of a serving dish, a bit like a mattress.22 I began cooking the baccalà … it takes very little time to cook, less than two minutes.  23 The lardo was crispy enough … out of the pan and onto the serving dish.24Turn the baccalà over very carefully, using two spoons if it helps.
And now serve !26 I poured dollops of the tomato sauce on top of the kale and then placed the baccalà on top of that.  I put kroepoek all around the serving dish.  It looks a bit overcrowded in this photo, sorry.27 Here is the dish served on the dinner plate.  Just one kroepoek to give the dish a crispy element.28So … did all the ingredients blend together okay?  Ahem … not saying this recipe can’t be improved upon but yes, I’d say it was pretty good.  The kroepoek delivered a little crunch … there was plenty of taste … the tomato sauce provided a dash of acidity and the kale a pinch of bitterness.  Surprisigly, the baccalà held its own.  Baccalà is a proud fish, it’s hard to cover it up.

Panzerotti alla romana

Please note: after I had written this post, a reader kindly pointed out that I had got the feast day all wrong: the feast day in question is (was) The Immaculate Conception, whereas I wrote of the Annunciation (which is celebrated in March).  And to think I was raised a catholic ! Shame on me … but not on my feelings !


Today, December 8th, is a public holiday in Italy and a holy feast day for practising catholics all over the world.

It is the day of the Annunciation, of the Archangel Gabriel visiting Mary and informing her that she has been chosen amongst all young women to bear the son of God.  Traditionally in Italy, until the advent of commercial impositions that herald the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ as early as November, today marks the time when Christmas festivities and decorations could formally begin.


This, by Fra Angelico,  is probably one of the most famous paintings of the Annunciation . I love the array of colours on the archangel’s wings and the look of serenity on Mary’s face. It is all somewhat hush hush, alluding to respect and dignity.


In this Annunciation, instead, by Lorenzo Lotto, the news comes with a bit more oomph and drama, frightens the cat and sort of unnerves Mary.

I love both paintings.  And, looking back to how I felt upon the discovery of my two pregnancies, I find that alternating undulations of serenity and alarm did indeed course through my emotions at the time.  The bearing of a new life is definitely a miracle, even though we ordinary mothers need to be impregnated by mere biological means.

Why all this talk of pregnancy and motherhood?  Well, I was looking through photos of food that I had prepared this year and came across the recipe for today.  More than the recipe, I remember the sheer joy of making it for my son and his friends.  My son left to live in Milan earlier this year and the tug at my mother’s heart could have escaped no one – I cried for days and developed an unsightly pimple on my lower cheek which corresponds to the Chinese Medicine point of the lungs, which in turn refers to the emotion of grief.  It was indeed a form of grief for me, even though I was really happy for him and his new job. I am so glad that society has started talking about the empty nest syndrome because I am convinced that just as there are biological, endocrinologically caused upsets in behaviour during adolescence, there must surely be a ‘reason’ other than co-dependency for a mother’s upset when her children ‘naturally’ leave home? “Partir, c’est un peu mourir”, say the French – going away, leaving, is a little bit like dying.  So maybe, when our children leave we are reminded of our own mortality? of time passing so quickly?  I do know mothers who are more than happy when their children leave home, so it is not the same for everyone.  And happy ‘departures’ are a very healthy thing.  All I know is that I am so glad to live in an age where telephones and the internet exist.

End of musing for today, and on with the recipe !


Favourite son came down from Milan for a brief visit last June and a dinner with his mates was hastily organised.  It’s always lovely when the house fills up with youthful energy and loud conversation and laughter and joking.  Said son (actually he is my only son) drove down with three other ‘passengers’ from Milan (the Milanese girlfriend of one his best friends, plus two of her friends) so it was imperative that I make a good ‘Roman’ impression for the meal.  Those who know me culinarily know that I am a FFF, a fried-food-fanatic and so of course I included courgette/zucchini blossoms fried in batter, stuffed with mozarella and anchovy, and other fried foods I can’t recall just now.

The one I do remember is a fried starter/appetizer known as ‘panzerotto alla romana’, ‘panzerotti’ being the plural term.  What I love about the panzerotti is that the dough is incredibly easy to make and you can stuff it basically with whatever you like.  I, however, did the traditional thing which is parma ham and cheese.

The young ‘uns came, sat down, had drinks, and we all enjoyed a really nice dinner together, with much gratifying head-nodding from them over my choice of menu.  And then they were off, in a tearing hurry, happy and excited, as is the wont of young people who want to hit town and do whatever young people like to do.


As I contemplated the ‘remains’ of the dinner … I consoled myself by remembering that cooking for others really does make me happy.  Cleaning up afterwards, less so … but there you are.

And before long it dawned on me that I had not had the time to fry the panzerotti !  What was I to do?  A sensible person would have placed them safely in the fridge.  I? You guesesed it, yes, after cleaning up, I fried them at 1 a.m. !  I knew that favourite son gets really hungry when he comes home after a night out and so they wouldn’t  be wasted.  I tasted one myself and heartily approved.  His friends ate them at room temperature the next day… wolfed them down.  So, all turned out well in the frying world.

Panzerotti are great finger foods for parties.  They can be prepared earlier on and frozen. Take them out of the freezer about 10 minutes before deep frying.


For the dough:

Flour – 300g

Butter- 20g

Egg yolks – 2

Water – 100ml

For the stuffing:

Parma ham – 75g, thickly sliced and then cubed

Gruyère cheese – 125g, cubed

Parmesan – 1 tablespoon

Groundnut oil or olive oil for frying.


2Place the sifted flour, 2 egg yolks, butter and water in the processor.  A pinch of salt too.


4Process the ingredients until a dough  is formed …5Shape the dough into a ball, cover with clingfilm and let it rest for at least 30 minutes in the fridge.  It will take another half an hour or so, depending on room temperatures, for the dough to be ready to roll out.  So take that into consideration too.

678That’s the parmesan sliced and cubed.

9That’s the gruyèrer cheese cubed.  Cheddar will do if you can’t get gruyère.


The grated parmesan.  Time to mix things up a bit!

12Put all the ingredients in a mixing bowl and add one whole egg.

13Combine all the ingredients and add some salt and pepper.

14Cut up the ball of dough into four parts and roll them out.

15Make sure your surface is well floured.

16This ‘mess’ is what I managed at that ungodly hour in the middle of the night.  It actually didn’t matter although I am sure that more preciseness is always a boon.  Plop a spoonful of the stuffing onto one side of the rolled out dough.

17The mess in all its glory!  Coyly cover the stuffing by drawing the other side of the dough to cover it.

18Use a cutter to shape the panzerotti roughly into a half moon shape.

19This is the result of my exertions.  Not too pleasing on the eye, let’s admit it.  But … tough: we do what we can do.  And this was the best I could do.

20Deep fry the panzerotti, a few at a time, in plenty of peanut/groundnut oil or olive oil, until crisp.

21Sprinkle a little bit of salt over them … “Il fritto vuole il sale” is the Italian expression for “fried food wants its salt”.

22That’s the one I had.  Jolly good it was too.  Yawn.  A glass of water.  Brush my teeth.  Go to bed.  Have to make these again soon …. Yawn.  Zzzzzzzzzzzzz.

And 36 hours later they were off again: four of the five  below.  From Frascati all the way to Milan in a tiny Cinquecento.  Buon viaggio !


Chicken Meatballs from the Roman Jewish Cuisine – Gozzaroddi


I was watching a TV programme about Roman Jewish cuisine back in Spring conducted by Gambero Rosso chef Laura Ravaioli and was intruigued by one recipe for meatballs, called ‘gozzaroddi’ (and other versions of this name) or ‘polpette col sedano’, i.e. meatballs with celery.  I jotted down some notes as I watched this particular episode of Ravaioli’s series on Roman Jewish Cuisine and here I am writing about it.  The interesting thing was the mixture of chicken and veal for these meatballs – I had never heard of that before.  And also, the addition of a little bit of cinnamon which instead is not so unusual in meat stews in Italian cuisine (I myself add a little bit of cinnamon to my oxtail stew, coda alla vaccinara).

INGREDIENTS:  1kg of minced meat (750g of chicken and 250g of veal): the proportion is 3 parts chicken to 1 part veal; 1 egg, cinnamon, 5 tablespoons Italian type breadcrumbs, plenty of celery, plum tomatoes or passata, salt and pepper

1 2Here are the breadcrumbs … you can use stale bread instead if you prefer.
3 Add enough water to make the breadcrumbs go ‘soggy’ and set aside.4 Put some water on the boil …5 Clean a few sticks of celery (let’s say 4?) and trim them of their fibrous exterior.6 Slice the celery into ‘sticks’.7 Divide the sticks into two sets – you will need to blanch them in simmering water, one set at a time.8 Add some salt to the boiling water and ease the first set of celery sticks in.  Let them simmer for about one minute.


Use a slotted spoon or whatever to drain the celery and place immediately in a bowl with ice-cold water in it.  Set aside. Repeat the procedure with the other set of celery sticks.  Do not throw the water away, it will come in handy later on.9Once cooled, chop the second set of celery sticks into cubes.  Set aside.10 Place the minced meat, the egg and a good pinch of cinnamon into a mixing bowl.11 Add the sodden breadcrumbs.12 Add salt and pepper.13 Find a nice casserole … dribble in plenty of olive oil.  Add a few peppercorns (that’s my addition, I simply love peppercorns).  Turn on the heat.
15 Now add the cubed celery and let it cook for about two minutes – no need to ‘brown’ this celery.16 Now add the passata and another pinch of salt and one of sugar.  At this point, while that sauce is simmering away, we can get on with preparing the meatballs.  As I write about the recipe months later, I realise that it could be done the other way around: i.e. prepare the meatballs first, and then the sauce. Whatever.17 18 Keep some nice fresh celery leaves for the final touch.19 The meat has to be very firm to the touch.20 The mixture needs to be shaped in an elongated sort of way – more meat-‘plums’ than meatballs !21 Place the meatballs inside the casserole.22
Add a little of the water the celery got cooked in so that the meatballs are completely covered in the cooking liquid.24 Shake the casserole so that the meatballs aren’t on top of one another.25 Cover and cook with the lid on for about 15 minutes …26 27 28Remove the lid, and add a handful of fresh celery leaves as well as the previously simmered celery sticks …
29 And cook for another 15 minutes or so.30 31Very ‘differen’t … very fresh (on account of the celery) and with that lovely hint of cinnamon.  Definitely worth making again.

Kale Crostini by Stefania Barzini

For all you kale lovers, and I know that there are plenty of you! Here is a recipe that is heartily delicious to enjoy and really simple to make.  All it requires is top notch ingredients, including proper good olive oil and ‘lardo’, i.e. slices of cured lard.  If you are vegetarian you will eschew the latter naturally; if you cannot find lardo, a good substitute would be streaky bacon.  For those of you who are about to celebrate Thanksgiving, you are still in time to think about making these to serve as pre-dinner snacks.  They are tasty enough to satisfy an encroaching hunger pang and light enough not to ruin one’s appetite.


Here are some kale crostini I made last September.

I learned to make them from Stefania Barzini.  Let me tell you a little about her below.  If you are in too much of a hurry or are not interested, by all means go straight to the recipe further down.


What I love about Stefania Barzini is that she not only knows a lot about food and its history, she really – but really really – likes to cook, it’s a passion we share.  Contentedess beams out of her as she goes about her cooking; and she is also very calm and collected, not a nervous kind of cook.  And not just Italian food, but French too (she is practically bilingual in French) and a bit of Greek, and a bit of Middle Eastern.  When her husband who is in the film business worked in California for a few years, Stefania hooked up with the Italian Culinary Institute in Los Angeles and taught classes there but she also learned plenty about American food.  Only a few weeks ago she was giving one of her themed dinners on Cajun food, for instance, and will be hosting a proper Thanksgiving dinner with all the frills in Milan tomorrow, after having hosted another one in Rome last week.  One of the soirées  I attended at her house earlier this year (don’t you just love the word ‘soirée’,? Humour me, I am in a soignée mood today)  was in honour of Honoré de Balzac and she had arranged for one of the guests to read out passages about him or from his books as we enjoyed the meal (including apricot stuffed goose if you want to know).  I would hate to give the impression that this was a blue stocking affair … good grief no, there was plenty of banter and requisite laughter to colour and highlight the evening.


Here is a not-very-good photo of the goose and apricot stuffing.

Goodness knows who/what I was in a previous lifetime or why I am particularly taken by the idea of good conversation in a salon à la Mme de Stael, but to me good food, fine wines, and refined and witty talk, not to mention a bit of good-natured gossip, come pretty to close to heaven on earth.    It explains why I love socialising at dinner parties and prefer them, on the whole,  to going out to eat at a restaurant for this purpose.  People behave differently in a home, they try harder I suppose?  Or are more grateful? Or can relax more?  Whatever.  Vive dinner parties! and may we never see their demise despite what glossy magazines have been writing on the subject for many years now.  I beg your pardon? Expensive? Yes, true, dinner parties can be expensive.  Yet I have pulled off very decent and enjoyable dinners with the cheapest and humblest of ingredients: pasta, rice, chicken, potatoes, some kind of veg and fruit salad.  It all depends on how you present your food and hospitality, or so I like to think.

So, yes, a little more about Stefania.  I can’t remember how I stumbled upon her but I think it was because I read her book “Fornelli d’Italia” on the beach two summers ago and found it not only well researched and written but also very necessary in this age of cookery obsession; she looks into how women bolstered and made their way in kitchens from 1861 onwards, i.e. since the creation of modern Italy, herding together a historical timeline, fact and anecdote as well as recipes.  I suppose I might have chased her up on facebook and she befriended me straight away.  Stefania has opinions and she likes, and is not afraid, to express them, not a few of which are guaranteed to raise people’s political or civil behaviour hackles.  I doff my hat to her outspokenness and insouciance of others’ opinion because it takes guts and moral high ground to bang on the way she does and have such an open mind at the same time.  I first  met her in person when Rachel Roddy asked me whether my husband and I might fancy attending a Sicilian food dinner that Stefania was giving, together with Fabrizia Lanza, using the fantastic island products of the Tasca Lanza farm.  Rachel herself has taught there, at the farm (https://racheleats.wordpress.com/2015/09/21/cook-the-farm/).


Stefania greeted us warmly at the door, told us where to hang our coats and then made off to the kitchen to get on with the work, and basically that’s all I saw of her for the rest of the evening – her home was buzzing with people, enjoying this stand-up dinner.



Stefania is nothing but hands-on about the whole meal preparation business and does not shirk from the hard work involved.  It leaves her exhausted afterwards but she has now come to expect that.  On one of these occasions, she carried on stoically despite a dreadful chest infection that had her enduring the evening with a high fever; the good thing was that it made her give up smoking.


This is a photo at the end of the evening, wiped out but still looking minimal-chic/maxi pearls glamorous.

Stefania was part of the spearheading team that built up the Gambero Rosso TV food and wine channel in Italy.  I don’t know when she began her own website: http://www.follecasseruola.com/.  She has written several books as well as articles for magazines.  And she loves to teach!  She taught Itailan cooking classes, with her trusty friend Paola, last Spring in New York City, Miami and Los Angeles.  She confided that at the end of one cooking lesson she noticed she had lost a precious ring and realized that it had been accidentally thrown in the rubbish bin outside the workspace.  Please forgive what I realize is an annoying habit of forgetting important narrative details but right now I shall just cut to the chase.  The long and the short of it is that in an attempt to climb through a window to reach out to the rubbish bin, she ended up finding herself uncomfortably wedged there.  The good news is that she was able to retrieve her ring and was finally able to dislodge herself out of this tight and claustrophobic position but not before a long and scary struggle.  How did  you cope? I asked.  (I personally would have had a panic attack – but then maybe I wouldn’t have braved the window the way she did.)  She said that all she could do was laugh, her laughter helped her out of this fix, literally.  So … there you go, that’s Stefania for you.  Always chic even when the situation isn’t.  She also teaches Italian food history at one of the American universities in Rome.  A lover of nature and an inveterate traveller, she is a doting grandmother and one of those people who, I think, will never get ‘old’, her spirit and sense of adventure simply won’t allow it.

Thus, it was not totally unnatural that I should have turned to Stefania when I came across another spirited Italian lady, a spritely ‘young’ lady of almost 100 years of age.


I asked Stefania if we could meet one day to discuss whether we might go down to Naples to interview her.  Her name was (yes, sadly she died last May) Marinella Peppa de Penta.  Again, I had ‘stumbled’ upon her, have no recollection how, and most probably over the internet in search of a recipe.  This wonderful lady who had recipes in her family that date back to the 17th century, obviously a family of some social standing, decided it would be a crying shame not to make them known to younger generations and so learned how to make videos of herself preparing them and posting them on Youtube (there is also a facebook page called “Fan di Marinella Penta de Peppo”).  For all her charm and coquettishness, Marinella’s video presence clearly implied that she would brook no nonsense and lived according to adamantine standards, and I fell for her hook, line and sinker.  Such a lover of life, such a generous teacher, such an upholder of culinary troves that might otherwise be lost! I could only look on admiringly as she went about her cooking in a tiny kitchen, dripping in jewellery, standing easily in heels, eye-catching attire and painted nails, imparting tips and secrets, and holding forth on good manners, all the while making sure she wasn’t cutting into the programme’s time.

One of the things I have learned from her is how to serve coffee.  She scoffed at the idea of letting guests serve themselves to coffee after a meal.  No, no, no!  The hostess must serve the coffee cup to the guest herself, one at a time, that’s how it’s done.  I was explaining all this to my forbearing husband and told him from now on that it would no longer suffice for him to make coffee for me in the morning if he knew what was good for him; he would have to serve me the coffee cup as well –  “Marinella Penta de Peppa says so and she should know!”.  Even if you don’t speak Italian, do click on the following link to get an idea of how wonderful she was; the recipe is a chicken alla cacciatora Neapolitan style: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RUsklFX5l1w.

The world that is interested in Italian culture via its food and recipes needs ambassadors (although really they are all ambassadresses) like the late Marcella Hazan and Marinella Peppa de Penta. It needs people like Anna del Conte.  Stefania Barzini does not write in English, more is the pity.  I reckon more people need to hear about her outside of Italy.

And now for the kale crostini recipe.


Stefania Barzini taught this recipe in the course of a workshop I attended for food writers and photographers at a breathtakingly beautiful venue called Casamora, in Tuscany, last June.  Casamora is a farm near Pian di Sciò, in the Valdarno region (http://www.casamora.it/eng/fattoria.html), and the owners of the estate, who are friends of Stefania’s, put her at the helm of the cooking classes.


Here are Stefania and friend/assistant Paola trimming the kale (please notice earrings and bangles). 


Once the kale has been trimmed, it has to be washed, obviously.  Grimy kale doth not a good crostino make.  After that, all it takes is to cook some garlic and a little bit of chilli in a puddle of olive oil.  Once it has turned golden, add the kale.  It will hiss and spit, so be careful.  Let it cook for about five minutes then add a good splosh of white wine, season, cover with a lid and cook until the kale has become tender. That might take about 40 minutes altogether, it will depend on the amount and quality of kale.

6789While that is going on … turn the oven on and toast the slices of bread that make up the crostini.

10Once the kale is ‘done’, you have to mash it up.

11Use a food processor or a mouli-type food mill.

12Time to season the kale with a little more salt and pepper too this time, and with heaps of dribbles of excellent olive oil.  This Casamora olive oil won the gold prize at this year’s Los Angeles Extra Virgin Olive Oil Awards.  What can I say ?


Time to assemble !

15Spoon a layer of the kale over each slice of toasted bread.

14Here are the slices of the Lardo di Colonnata.

16Deftly pick at the lardo (it’s very sticky) and place a slice over the kale.

17Into a hot oven they go … for just the right amount of time it takes for the lardo to melt.

18And now they are ready to eat.

19And now enjoy – eat them while they’re hot!

Stinco di Manzo con Uva di Frascati


I simply intuited that I would want to attend a themed dinner chez  food writer, teacher, journalist and caterer Stefania Barzini last November (i.e. 2015) in Rome (Stefania can be quite the gadabout – more about her in another post).  She and friend Paola run these evenings that bring acquaintances and strangers to the same table, and the atmosphere can be made even more interesting just by that very fact.  Food is guaranteed to be special, not just good.

Anyway the menu that evening centred around Tuscany, based on all things bright and beautiful sourced directly from the delightful  Badia di Coltibuono estate.  Indeed, so directly that Emanuela Stucchi Prinetti herself brought  all the ingredients over from the farm (including olive oil and award winning wines) and helped cook the meal.  Emanuela’s mother Lorenza De’ Medici is famous for her cooking:


Another reason for me to want to attend the evening was that my darling Uncle James, who had died only just a few weeks before, had treated us to lunch at the Badia only three years previously and the memory was still sweet, if poignantly so now.  He was enchanted by the place, the food and the atmosphere … and mesmerised by the enormous cedar tree on the estate.

Uncle James was a pretty good cook himself and made his own bread right to the end. In our family, he is well known for enjoying anything you put before him and making the best cocktails.  My son’s mates here in Frascati remember Uncle James’s cocktails too; they sipped them at an age when they couldn’t conceive fully of their after effects but at least they learned the difference between a good and a bad one!  Evenings at Uncle James’s tiny house in Chiswick, London, always began with cocktails, served in vintage glasses and accompanied by delicious appetisers.  Despite the casual attire he favoured after retirning from a bank job where he always had to look sharp, he always had that touch of class about him.   Anyway … back to the Tuscan dinner and the inspiration for me.

The menu at Stefania’s that evening was the following:

Crostini al cavolo nero Crostini toscani classici (Crostini with kale)
Pappardelle al sugo di cinghiale (Papparadelle with wild boar sauce)
Stinco all’uva (Shank cooked with grapes)
Purè di patate (mashed potatoes)
Semifreddo al caffè (Coffee ice cream)
Cantuccini (Cantucci, the typical Tuscan biscuits)
Trappoline Bianco Chianti Classico
Chianti Classico Riserva Cultus Boni
Chianti Classico Riserva Vinsanto

It was a fabulous  meal, I remember plenty of interesting conversation, an easy atmosphere and more than one languge being spoken although it was definitely a predominantly Italian evening.  There isn’t much ‘fuss’ at Stefania’s dining table … people have to help themselves and pour their own wine and just get along.  (It reminded me a little of the table-side manners we had to adhere to at boarding school.  However shy one was, one had to make conversation and just get along.)

emanuelaThe dish that struck me the most was the beef shank, cooked slowly with wine and grapes.  The photo below, unfortunately, does not do it any justice.img_2217You shall just have to take my word for it – it was melt-in-yout-mouth tender, savoury with a hint of sweetness and there was even the tiniest bit of crunch brought about by the grape pips.  I decided that I wanted to make some at home.  Thank you Emanuela !

Because home is Frascati, I was going to use Frascati wine naturally.  The word for shank in Italian is ‘Stinco’ and hence the title of my adaptation of Emanuela’s recipe.


This is a recipe that takes a long time to cook but it’s not in the least bit difficult.  I expect it can be made the day before – some stews taste even better the following day.
4So, let’s begin at the beginning.  Ask the butcher to cut the beef shank in half; that way it will take less time to cook.  Adorn the roasting tray with some onion, garlic, and a few tomatoes.  Coat the meat with olive oil.  5
Turn the oven on at 125°C.   That is a temperature I just guessed.

I let the shank cook for about two hours.

10This is what the  shank looked like after two hours in the oven.

I changed the position of the meat around and left the shank to continue cooking until 7 p.m.

In the meantime I washed some grapes and put them into a very large saucepan.13I coated the individual grapes with a little evoo and salt and added a few peppercorns to the mix.

14When the shank had cooked for almost 4 hours (i.e. 3 and three quarter hours), I took it out of the oven.
And this is what it looked like.  Ravishing already!

But I wasn’t finished with the cooking.  Not yet.  Wine o’clock !18

Red wine at that, only red wine for this stew.  The Frascati Casale Marchese “Rosso Eminenza” – the eminence in question referring to a cardinal in the estate’s owners family, Cardinal Micara.  He gave the last rights to the opera composer Giacomo Puccini, how’s that for blogpost trivia.
20What I did next was to debone the shank … not hard to do, it literally back apart with my fingers.
22Place the meat on top of the grapes .
24Add all the ingredients and juices too …

30Cover with a lid and when it starts to simmer, cook over a low heat.

32This is what it looked like after about one hour.  I tasted it and thought it need a little bit more cooking.  Without a lid now.
3435About 15 minutes later, I added two bayleaves.

39The meat was almost done.

Time to add some Cognac.  About 2-3 tablespoons.  The cognac added a bit of ‘depth’, can’t explain better than that.  It was a ‘trick’ I used when making coq-au-vin: add a bit of cognac towards the end.

Time to switch the heat off.  Please note: total cooking time was from 4 p.m. to 9:40 p.m., i.e. almost 5 hours.41And this is when I added twists of pepper.  This is a valuable tip I got from Gareth Jones – always add the pepper only towards the very end.


I used a pair of scissors to chop up the shank a bit.

Add some fresh grapes to the mix … just for colour and vitality.

And then serve and enjoy.  I am so sorry that, just as with Emanuela’s photo of her shank stew above, the photo of my Stinco doesn’t look anything as good as it tasted !

We chose a Principe Pallavicini Mororello to accompany the meal.

It was not the same as Emanuela’s but it was good, very very good.  And I shall be making this again when the temperatures drop and we need some slow cooking, slow drinking, bonding and befriending.

In honour of Uncle James, who would have noddingly approved !


Ducky Deconstruction

Or … how to deal with a messy, uncrispy duck might be another title.  It wasn’t supposed to have been that way.  I have prepared duck using this technique many times and the result has always silly-grin on people’s face pleasing.  I had read about this technique as far ago as last century,  probably in the mid 1990s.  In a magazine article.  The easiest way to cook duck is to – wait for it – boil it first!


The duck is simmered for about an hour in plenty of water and then drained.  It’s surprising how much fat transfers from the duck to the cooking water.  And yet ducks are so fatty in and of themselves that the prior boiling does not dry them out when it comes to roasting them.  The result is genius! Crispy skin on the outside and tender, moist flesh within, not to mention very little fuss overall.

2-23I decided I would stuff the  boiled duck with one presimmon, one orange and a couple of bayleaves.

4I dribbled a bit of persimmon over the duck and dribbled a bit of olive oil too – and then the usual : salt and pepper.

The oven was already preheated at 200°C.


About 35 minutes later, I took the duck out of the oven, rolled it on to the other side and squeezed some fresh orange juice into the roasting pain.  Back in the oven again for another 30 minutes or so (i.e. roast for about 1 hour).


It looked good … well, on this side at least.

12Not quite so appealing on the other side.  Sigh.  Hopes dashed and duck dilemma begins. It was all about the consistency of the skin – normally it is ingratiatingly crispy, this time it was ever so slightly on the soggy side, that is: it WAS cooked but it wasn’t crispy cooked.  How very disappointing.  What to do? Wash greasy fingers, dry fingers and then a bit of soul-searching head-scratching for a solution.

13Mental light bulb switches on! Deconstruct the duck, that’s what.  Prise the flesh from the carcass and present it that way …

14I used two spoons.

15aAnd this was what was left – not to be thrown away, but to make a hearty soup, the next day!

1617Pour all the juices onto the duck.

18And all’s well that ends well and, all things considered,  a lot easier to serve too.  We had some pan fried artichokes to accompany this dish; some plain rice would have complemented it too.

Note to self for next time: the duck must  be roasted in a VERY hot oven: 250°C as opposed to the 200°C – and that would have given us the the crisp I was clamouring after.

20And these bright little things did a good job – their nuance in the final count added a pleasant sweetness to curb the gameyness of the duck.

“Sora Maria e Arcangelo” and “Casale Sonnino”

Friend Claire from New York makes regular visits to help brother George run their Casale, a beautiful country house at the foot of Monte Porzio Catone, with breathtaking views of the Roman countryside and the Tiburtini, Lucretilli and Prenestini mountain chain.  The estate has vineyards and olive groves and is built over an ancient Roman Villa (take a look at their website for more eye-brow raising details: www.casalesonnino.com ). If you think running a normal house is hard work (as I do), you can imagine how much more complicated running a rental home can be, the work is never ‘done’, there is always some Damocles-sword repair work requiring sensitive attention (you wouldn’t believe how often a tractor can break down), appliances needing renewal or furnishings begging for refreshment; come October, freshly picked olives are rushed to the mill (and the milling can go on till midnight!) to make their award-winning olive oil.


Claire and George go to great lengths to make sure their guests are not only comfortable but cosseted too.  Rome is the Eternal City and nothing can compare with it, that’s a given.  Having said this, however, the proximity to Rome means that their Casale can offer the discerning tourist a very different ‘take’ on a stay in this part of the world, including day trips to historically and scenically attractive hill towns or seaside towns, and all kinds of activities for the more energetically inclined  (including painting, biking and hiking).  There is so much more to  Lazio than meets the eye, and I often say that it is one of the most underrated Regions of Italy.  I’m a Lazio Lady, I am, through and through.

Anyway, I am in love with the Casale and have very fond memories of a fantastic, 40 people strong, live-band New Year’s Eve party there a couple of years ago, up on the terrace watching all the fireworks over Rome.


And during a very hot day last Summer, I did a wine-tasting and cooking class there with a small group who were loath to leave the shady headiness of the arbor.

George, who lives permanently at the Casale, is a great cook, by the way.  He was making chocolate treats the other day, you know, as one does, just because … I don’t think I could be friends with people who do not appreciate good food, sorry, there I’ve said it.  Claire is always on the look-out for interesting places for their guests to enjoy a meal and when she quizzed me the other day, I suggested we go to “Sora Maria and Arcangelo” in Olevano Romano.  I had been wanting to go for a while now and this gastronomic jaunt was a perfect excuse for both of us to catch up.


The drive there was pretty enough, the autumnal trees beginning to change the colour of their leaves.  I took the wrong turning at one point, driving past a town called Paliano, and that can happen with me sometimes; I get carried away by conversation and end up on the road less travelled.


But get there we did and goodness me! What a great meal.  Definitely going to return for more visits with darling husband.  By the way, not that it would be any business of the reader, but I do want to make one thing perfectly clear: if I write about people and places, shops and markets, wine bar, tatty trattoria or rolls Royce restaurant, it is because I want to, it is my pleasure – no one pays me for any endorsement.  Not that this restaurant needs my endorsement ! They have been slapped on their backs and feted by the likes of the Michelin Guide and Italy’s Gambero Rosso.  Eleonora Baldwin (www.aglioolioepeperoncino.com)  and Gina Tringali (www.gtfoodandtravel.com), two of Rome’s top notch food and wine connoisseurs are patrons, I know.  And by the way, getting any down-town Roman to budge two kilometers from their blessed city for the suburbs or the nearest countryside is a big thing, let me tell you (they can be such sissies that way, you wouldn’t believe!).

There was a truffle based menu … How many of us knew that there were truffles in the Aniene Valley north east of Rome?


Roberto, our waiter, was most charming and attentive without being the least bit intrusive.  Not that I can’t knock back a string of wine glasses in the course of a meal but when it comes to lunch, and especially when I am driving afterwards, I usually abstain altogether.  This being such a great restaurant, however, I decided that I could sip leisurely just the one glass of wine, and Roberto didn’t look down snobbily at us and suggested we try the following:

14And jolly nice it was too.  Olevano Romano is known for its Cesanese wine as are the towns of Piglio and Affile (hence we have  “Cesanese del Piglio” and “Cesanese di Affile”).  Sarah May of Antiqua Tours can tell you a bit more about these wines, and the wines of Lazio in the following interview: http://www.the-beehive.com/blog/index.php/italian-wine-for-beginners.

As Claire and I wrinkled our foreheads in deep concentration over the menu(s), Roberto hovered over us bringing some home-made bread and great olive oil (Quattrociocchi – one of my very very favourites !) to aid us in our decision making:


It was great to see so many choices and to appreciate the origins of the foods … it was quite obvious that sourcing close by and from the best was a hallmark of this restaurant’s approach to food stuffs.  The wine list, instead, reaches out to wines from all over Italy and to France too.


Once we had put in our orders. Roberto brought us a little – well, not quite so little – amuse bouche, by way of a rice croquette flavoured the cacio e pepe way; these croquettes are known as ‘supplì’ in Rome.  You know me, Fried Food Fanatic … deelicious!


To start off with, Claire and I both opted for chickpea (garbanzo) soup with a fried salt cod ‘lolly’. Roberto encouraged us to dip the baccalà lolly into the soup before biting into it, and then finishing off the soup with a spoon, the proper way.   The chickpeas were sourced from Umbria, from the town of Spello.

16Next for our little tastings was a meatball made from stewed oxtail.  This was a first for Claire but not for me – I had eaten polpette di coda alla vaccinara at the Tordo Matto restaurant in Zagarolo about six years ago.  It was one of chef Adriano Baldassarre’s signature dishes.  Different in style, so much more tomato sauce chez Sora Maria and Arcangelo’s version, but very very good.

17For my main course, I went for the lamb trio.  Agnello or Abbacchio as it is called in Italy. I had a lamb chop fried in breadcrumbs and lamb roast in the most delicious gravy.

19The third part of the trio was lamb ‘coratella’ – lamb offal sautéed with onion.  This can be a little strong on occasion, but not at the hands of Chef Giovanni Milana.  It was truly a miracle that he could get it to be so truly tasty whilst curbing its over-meaty overtones. Hats off, chapeau.

18A close-up of the crunchy fried lamb chop …

18aA close-up of the roast lamb and rich rosemary infused gravy.

20Claire went for the faraona roast … the guinea hen stuffed with chestnuts and served with cabbage and potatoes.  Please don’t quote me but faraona is not usually something I would hanker after and yet … under Chef Giovanni Milana’s expert hands, this fowl brought the word delectable to mind.

21Dessert was pannacotta with chestnuts and a persimmon sauce.

22I don’t even like desserts much but this one has me wanting to imitate it very soon.  This is persimmon season after all.

23Little treats, biscuits, to accompany the coffee.

25Our waiter, the charming and efficient Roberto.

24Claire with Chef Giovanni Milana.

26And there am I, basking between the two, happy as Larry, at the end of such a civilised, gorgeous, leisurely lunch.

Good food can put you in the mood, as I like to say … but if there is no atmosphere or if the ambience is unrelaxed or unwelcoming, even the best tasting food has to take a hammering.  Grazie Giovanni Milana, grazie Roberto and the rest of the staff at Sora Maria e Arcangelo for bringing such magic to the table.  Grazie Claire for a lovely lunch!