Going Classical – Coq au Vin

A Mini Epic of my Own to Start Off the New Year

Up until February last year, one of my jobs included greeting small groups of visitors, mostly foreign, at Frascati’s train station, leading them for an hour-long walkabout of the town, sitting them down to a glass of wine with a nibble of Frascati’s famed white pizza (the store that bakes it, Ceralli, with a wood-fired oven, dates back to 1920), and then accompanying them to the Minardi wine estate, a small family-run winery, only a few minutes car drive away. 

minardi vineyard photo

There followed a traipse through the vineyards with explanations pertaining to volcanic soil, grape varietals, training methods and yield and more bla-bla-bla regarding the vital-statistics of wine making, before finally sitting them down to lunch and serving them wine.  Guests could also choose between a pizza making class and a fresh pasta lesson in lieu of the gander about the town. 

Most people on holiday are in a good mood (especially those who look forward to wine and drink) and nearly all the people I met over the two years were friendly and polite, whatever their age, whatever their background, and whatever their income.  Before being invited by Alfredo Minardi to join his team back in September 2017, I had already run a few tours of my own, so to speak, in the course of my cooking classes.  People like to go shopping for food and wine, and frolicking among the stalls of outdoor food markets.  I had looked up some background history and found it fascinating but it wasn’t altogether essentially germane to the cooking class per se whereas the Minardi experience had to be specifically about Frascati’s history and its place in the wine world, dating back to ancient Roman times – and even earlier. 

Well, I ask you: how do you cover over two thousand years of history in less than one hour and, most important, keep your audience interested?  A little daunting, wouldn’t you say? 

The trickiest part for me was figuring out whom I was dealing with right from the very start. And so, after a brief introduction about myself as part of the welcome spiel, I would ask them their names, enquire about their relationships, what kind of work they were in, and where they came from, as we made our way up some very steep steps from the station to the town’s promenade overlooking Rome in the distance.  Not easy as all those steps made one get out of breath. You can see the two sets of stairs in the black-and-white photo below.

station

With my unmistakably English accent, fair skin and once-blond hair, it was a bit of a feat convincing them that I was the real deal, Italian (albeit only half), indeed very much a local. 

BarDegliSpecchi01-1110x400

I made sure we visited the town’s famous “Bar degli Specchi” café, which was started in 1911 by my grandfather’s brother – which is also where, together with the town’s beloved confectioners “Purificato”, Frascati’s other claim to fame besides wine was first sold, just after the second World War: it is a biscuit depicting a female figure with three breasts – two for milk and one for wine.  Great for teething babies, not so great for grown-ups who might chip a tooth on one! The recipe consists of just plain flour and honey basically. The biscuit comes with a name “la pupazza frascatana”.

pupazza frascatana one

Not infrequently, Frascati being what it is in size, I chanced into people I know and whom I always acknowledged and greeted, exchanging a few words. This was very helpful in backing my local yokel credentials.  It’s hard to be anonymous in a small town.

The thing about guiding is that you have to keep your wits about you at all times as you steer. And you definitely want to avoid being a Little Bo Peep about it. I made a point of keeping an eye on my “ sheep’s “ body language, seeking out and distinguishing among the shy, the bored and the physically jaded or resigned tag-alongs; also, the nit-pickers, the brash look-at-me-look-at-me , the over excitable and the woeful cynics.  Whenever I heard a giggle or saw a smile break out, that’s when I knew I was doing a good job.  And yes, there was that dreaded ‘wall of silence’ too on occasion, in which no amount of cajoling on my part drew any response. Not unless you count a glazed look as a response. Not all were fluent English speakers and that meant I had to ssssslooooow down my recital, and choose my words more carefully, avoid jargon.  And some did not have, to my regret, much sense of humour – these were the difficult clients.  Italian and Spanish are similar and so I somehow managed to convey quite a lot to a group of Spanish speaking clients during lunch until it came to pecorino cheese, made from ewe’s milk.  I knew the word for cheese was “queso”.  But I didn’t know the word for lamb or sheep.  So I started bleating like crazy “baaa baaa meh meh meh” I improvised.  They got it.  All was well.  Playing it by ear, winging it, tweaking – these are all qualities to be developed if you want to make people feel welcome.  The one-size-fits-all approach to tourism is the one I detest.  I can honestly say that, whatever my mood or worries on any given day, I did my best to do my best for these clients.  After all, they had paid to have a good and pleasant experience and that, no matter who they were, was what they deserved.

“Pleasure and action make the hours seem short”, Shakespeare.

In my excitement to present as full a historical picture as possible, I realised straight away that I would risk boring some of the people to tears.  Information overwhelm is easy to succumb to, as we all know.  It was imperative that I find a way to make Frascati’s history and Who’s Who List appetising even for those who had the poorest of grasps on history. And the logical conclusion I came to was to devise a way of presenting the storyline and facts almost like the plot of a history soap opera, caricaturising the protagonists somewhat. 

Here is an approximate list of notables whose tales were worthy of mention: the mythical Dioscuri twins Castor and Pollux (you wouldn’t believe the antics they got up to in the battle of 496 BC that took place down the road from the Minardi winery), a Tusculan tyrant, the last of Rome’s Etruscan kings, a few Roman statesmen and philosophers, inventors, popes, princes, British royalty, Grand Tour painters including Turner, Goethe (who lived in Frascati for three months) and Nazi leaders from World War II (which got Frascati thoroughly bombed twice by the Allies).  

Titian_-_Pope_Paul_III_-_WGA22962

Whilst I couldn’t expect most people to have heard of Pope Paul III Farnese pictured above, for instance (and by the way neither had I until a few years ago), just as I couldn’t expect North Americans to be intimately acquainted with Bonnie Prince Charlie, picture my disappointment and dismay, instead, when I discovered it was many English (young English it must be noted) who had never heard of Mary, Queen of Scots!  At times, I was thankful for the TV Series “Outlander” (which I have still to watch) because some people were well acquainted with it.

My biggest ‘disappointment’, however, was a thirty-year old Canadian who had never heard of Napoleon.  (Napoleon’s favourite sibling, his sister Pauline, was married to Frascati’s Prince Aldobrandini – so this prince turned out to be Napoleon’s brother in law; also, Napoleon’s brother Prince Lucien lived just above Frascati for two years in a beautiful villa that is now a hotel).  I remember gasping inwardly when this young man asked me who Napoleon was.  But once I got over my intellectual ‘shock’, I became rather sad.  It wasn’t the poor bloke’s fault he hadn’t heard of Napoleon!  (And, by the way, I had responded very nicely to his question, no hint of condescension whatsoever, just a factual “a very important French military man and then leader and emperor”, something like that.)  Regrettable though that man’s ignorance was, the real issue was all about school curricula and general knowledge.  And I wasn’t about to shame him or any other person who has not had the good fortune to have access to what used to be called a ‘good school education’. 

All this to say that I am immodestly proud that I managed to prick the interest of quite a few otherwise uninterested people by my soap-opera approach to local history.  Which just goes to show how making lessons more fun might encourage pupils to become better engrossed in the history of humankind.  People are people are people and have always been people, beautiful qualities and warts and all. I have to thank this young Canadian for making me realise just how ignorant I too am!  My knowledge of much of history is scant to say the very least, and/or very Wikipedia-deep – and for shame those who fingerpoint to its superficiality! 

Which is how I come, now, to the reason behind this post’s title (I can just picture you sighing “And about bloody time too!).

There is a Scottish journalist living in Nemi, the name of a town and volcanic lake which is about a twenty-minute car drive from Frascati.  Her name is Margaret Stenhouse.  I had the good fortune of meeting her in person just recently but had read her biography of Henry Benedict, Duke of York. 

Royal Collection Palace of Holyrood House  March 2018
Royal Collection Palace of Holyrood House March 2018

Prince Henry Benedict outlived his brother Bonnie Prince Charlie and was the last direct descendant of the Stuart male line, who had lived in Frascati for the better part of 40 years.  A beautifully written book, which I can highly recommend and which would make a great docu-film; it chronicles the two-year period which saw the Duke, who was a cardinal and Bishop of Frascati, having to run away from Napoleon’s troops encroaching on Rome. 

Margaret Stenhouse has also written a book about the Goddess of Lake Nemi, Diana, and of the legend inspired by tales of solitary forest warrior-kings keeping watch over her sacred groves.  It was a visit to this very lake that had inspired the anthropologist Sir John George Frazer to write “The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion”.  (Diana was the Roman name for the Greek Godess Artemis, twin sister to Apollo).

diana nemi

Anyway, I began reading her book shortly before Christmas and the more I read about antiquity and myths and gods, the more I felt I had to get a better grounding in the Classics. 

And guess what? I started reading The Odyssey.  Beat that.  At the tender age of 64.  Never say never, and all that.  I’ve seen TV renditions of The Odyssey, and I am sure I must have read a child-friendly abridged version when I was a kid.   One way or another, we’ve all heard about Penelope and Odysseus, and the one-eyed man-eating giant Cyclopes … the Homeric tales, The Iliad and The Odyssey … they are part and parcel of our whole Western culture for goodness sakes.  So many of the most famous paintings and statues in the West are all about the antics of the Greek and/or Roman Gods and Godesses.  It really was time, for me at least, to get more acquainted with them.  I’ve even started jotting down notes putting their family tree together, the genealogy is head-scratching stuff!

I’ve got to the part in The Odyssey when Odysseus finally lands back in Ithaca.  The thing that has struck me most in this epic tale so far is … well… the sheer amount of words dedicated to eating and drinking!  Those ancient Greeks liked their nosh and wine!  Seriously, I kid you not, every single chapter goes on and on about banqueting, the washing of hands before a meal, the butchering of some animal in sacrifice to the Gods and which then of course gets eaten by the mortals, and the mixing and the pouring of wine!  Interesting to know that wine was drunk at breakfast too.  But then, it was often in those days mixed with water and honey.  There is much talk of eating bread, fish and hogs/sheep/goats/heifers/bulls, olive oil, fruit but no vegetables.  Fancy that.  Also, there is no mention of chicken.  Or eggs.  Someone told me fish would have been eaten by the poorer echelons in that society.  Things have changed since then, at least in this country – fresh fish comes at a premium!

One episode in particular brought a smile to my face, and this was the tale of how naughty Aphrodite and her lover Ares got ensnared in a magical, invisible net wrought by Aphrodite’s jealous and cuckolded husband, poor lame Hephaestus.   When I say ‘poor’, I mean that kindly because he’s not exactly a sympathetic character and one wonders what prompted the dazzling Aphrodite to even think of marrying him!  Anyway, once the Gods had had a good laugh at Ares and Aphrodite in their naked amorous pickle, they decided to unloosen the net and Aphrodite repairs to Paphos, on the island of Cyprus.  Which was the cause for my smile.

You see, a long time ago, my (Scottish) stepfather decided that he would like to spend his retirement between English-speaking Cyprus and Frascati.  This was before he divorced my mother and married his much younger secretary in Pakistan, in a ‘classic’ older-powerful-man-younger-woman situation.  It has to be said that my mother had never taken to Cyprus to begin with, meaning, she thought it lovely and all that as a place to visit, but not as a place in which to make one’s abode.  That and she hates islands!  Hell hath no lament as that of my mother forced to spend time on an island!  She and my sisters had spent six months living on the Channel Island of Jersey at a time when civil war between East and West Pakistan had uprooted our father’s work in East Pakistan, and he had sent them to live there for the time being as he sought work elsewhere.  I was at boarding school at the time, in England.  To this day, the very mention of Jersey will cue my mother to start an impassioned diatribe on the horrors of living on an island.  Cabin fever in the extreme. I, on the other hand, just loved Jersey because it meant I could telephone my mother every day if I wanted to, and that I got to spend two half-term breaks with my her and my sisters rather than with friends (lovely and very kind friends, with whom I am still in touch today – but family is family).  Same thing re Cyprus. Daddy bought a lovely villa on the hills in the background of Paphos and when one is on holiday, what’s not to love? That and I love swimming in the sea. One of my favourite holidays ever was a July spent in Paphos in 1981.

They say that Aphrodite was washed ashore on Paphos, brought in by the huge shell she was born in from the foam of the sea.  In the bay of Paphos there are some clumps of rock, one of which is called Petra tou Romiou

cyprus-petra-tou-romiou-aphrodite-s-rock-scenery

Legend had it that if a young girl swam around it three times, she would find her husband within a few months.  And so, nothing loath, I embarked on the vigorous swim around that rock, three times, as per instructions.  And by the way, this is not as easy as it sounds, the sea is very choppy there.  But yes.  Yes indeed, just two months later, in September 1981, I met my future husband. “Other popular myths tell that swimming around the rock three times will bring various blessings, including eternal youth and beauty, good luck, fertility and true love.”

I wonder why the Cypriot Tourist Board does not advertise this legend more!  Not sure about the ‘eternal beauty’ bit but it worked for me in finding a spouse.  So maybe, who knows, my husband and I should go to Paphos some time and show our gratitude to Aphrodite.  Meanwhile, closer to home, I’ve got Diana to check out at Lake Nemi.

All these thoughts about myths and gods and Classical times got me thinking about what to prepare for our new year’s dinner. 

You will forgive me if I make as little mention as possible about what 2020 was all about.  For each single one of us.  Suffice it to say that instead of a party or of going out, ours was a very homey affair.  Four of us: my recently widowed father in law, my next-door neighbour Rossella (we live on the same landing and see each other every day, so we consider ourselves covid ‘family’ bubble whereas we might stay away from other friends and family for covid mitigation measures) and my husband and me.

I decided to go classic French menu.  Rossella brought same savoury crepes and made spinach according to my mother’s 1950s very Francophile recipe (aka loads of cream).  I made coq au vin.  And we drank a bottle of Pommard given to us by some neighbours a few years ago, which we had not drunk in anticipation of a ‘special occasion’.  I think that seeing the back of 2020 was a very special occasion indeed.  For the whole world and not just for us.

Happy New Year Everyone !

4

7

5

References/Tags:

Forno a Legna Ceralli, Frascati

Bar degli Specchi, Frascati

Pasticceria Purificato, Frascati

Azienda Agricola Minardi

https://www.visitcyprus.com/index.php/en/discovercyprus/rural/sites-monuments/item/732-birthplace-of-aphrodite-petra-tou-romiou

Nonna Luciana’s Chicken Recipe

 A Far Away Mother in Law, A Far Away Mother, A Close Friend

A week ago, aged 85, my mother-in-law Maria died.  The photo below was taken just over two years ago. We were enjoying an al fesco aperitivo en famille.

5

She was suffering from Alzheimers and, to everyone’s relief, she had finally been placed in a residential care home at the beginning of October.  Her time there was indeed brief, just over a month.

Maria and my father-in-law had moved into a flat in the same building we live in just over two years ago, so that my husband and I could keep an eye on them.  Looking after a loved one in her condition was an uphill battle leading to Irritation County in Frustration Land with the River Sadness coursing through it.  She talked gibberish most of the time, had continual mood swings, few good ones at that, and, as of June, could no longer walk on her own, requiring a wheelchair.  We had a helper to give family members some relief in the mornings but it soon became obvious that what was required was a 24/7 carer.  One was found last Summer, when she and her husband were staying in her home town in the Marche, a sweet young girl who did her best.  She literally ran away after four weeks.  Can’t blame her – though I did ‘blame’  her for not giving any notice whatsoever.

I shall be candid: I thought about the merits of euthanasia a lot these past few months. 

Our sympathy swerved inevitably towards her poor husband, Nonno Giose, who had to put up with her night and day, who turned 91 last September, no spring chicken himself.  Her death, however, came as a total surprise because her overall health had been good, she wasn’t taking any medication.  Indeed, she died from the consequences of Covid.  The Residential Care Home rang my husband at around 5 a.m. last Monday to tell us she had breathing difficulties and were taking her to hospital.  The death certificate states that she died in the ambulance on the way there.

Our initial reaction was more a series of reactions but the long and the short of it was that a sense of solace never strayed.  What name can we give to that peculiar emotion wherein we feel relief that someone we love has died?  I lost a friend of my age to cancer last week too – and relief plays no part whatsoever in my mourning her. There is just anger, sadness and regret.  Not so with Nonna Maria – I think the most loved person I have ever known, seriously.  Everyone was fond of her and the outpouring of condolences arrived from all over the world:  family, friends and relations in England, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, the USA and even Hong Kong and New Zealand.

Friends and family who are not Italian commented their surprise at how quickly the funeral arrangements were made.  This is common in Italy: the dead have to be buried within 48 hours (unless they die at home I can only presume). It was decided that she would be laid to rest, the following day, in the beautiful cemetary of her home town in the Marche, close to her own beloved mother who died when she was still a toddler. I have mentioned this town before in some of my posts, Monterubbiano. When our children were growing up we spent so many summer holidays there! It is about a three-hour drive away from Frascati. Our son who lives in Milan could not join us on account of travel restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic.  Informing my children over the telephone was what made me break down and cry – Nonna Maria, their beloved nonna, who adored them and who made her so happy had gone.

The practicalities of arranging ‘stuff’ includes sending messages to relations and loved ones, arranging the funeral and lots more besides.  But people have to eat.  So of course I undertook to organise both lunch and dinner that day.  Eating at times like these is somewhat surreal.  The mind has to process the shock. 

Anyway, the following day on our drive up to the Monterubbiano, my dear friend Liz messages me to announce she would like to arrange dinner for us, and what can she prepare?  “Some soup and vegetable side dishes would be great”, I answer in gratitude.  I had already planned inwardly to do some food shopping after the funeral on our way back.  I knew we would return by dinner time and was trying to think what I could cook relatively quickly and soup would have taken too much time.  There were going to be five of us: my husband and I, our daughter, my sister-in-law and my father-in-law.

What Liz prepared was not just dinner … it was a feast, an act of love. 

The care and detail that went into it was touching in the extreme.  I don’t care what people say but food – good food – really DOES put you in the mood, it is the essence of life.

The five of us (a) had been on the road for a total of six hours, (b) seen the burial of a loved one who had suffered the indignity of a merciless disease, and (c) was missing the presence of the fourth element of our nuclear family.  Not a jolly setting by any standard. 

Liz’s food brought about a dining miracle under the circumstances.  The photos that follow are rubbish because I snapped them in haste, not even thinking – but I hope they are enough to give you an idea of the bounty that was offered to us and that allowed us, as a family, to raise a glass to Nonna Maria in the right spirit.  For a short time, a brief hiatus, we were able to turn down the volume of our grief, and get on with the comfort and enjoyment of the meal.

I have mentioned Liz’s cooking regularly in my blogs.  She is Australian with Italian family roots, and moved to Frascati when she married her second husband who is from here.  Her parents live in Sydney.  Indeed, her dad suffers from dementia so she has an idea of what we went through.  Liz is the best home cook I know – and I know quite a few.  She could have ‘dazzled’ us that evening with all kinds of ‘high-end’ renditions or haute-cuisine preparations.  What touched me the most in her choice of menu was that she prepared her mother’s signature chicken recipe. When the going needs comfort, the food has to be comfort food.

Her mother’s name is Luciana.  So the way I see it now … there was much love traversing the world all the way from Nonna Luciana in Sydney to Nonna Maria’s family in Frascati.  Via Mamma Liz of course.  It takes mothers, doesn’t it, to know what to do when it comes to a life-affirming repast.

1

Olives to keep us going as we lay the table.

7

A glass of wine – not Frascati !

2

Silky smooth pumpkin soup prepared with proper chicken stock. Liz provided sour cream to go along with it but no one in the family partook – it’s not exactly an Italian “thing” . Until relatively recently, you couldn’t even find sour cream in the shops in this country. My father in law likes his food and is a remarkably good ‘eater’ given his age. Widowhood did not make an indent in his appetite but he had never had pumpkin soup before. He graciously accepted to taste “just a little”, bless him, but went on to have two more helpings!

2a

These were the croutons to go with the soup. But not just any ol’ ordinary croutons, oh no. They hail from 3-star Michelin chef Niko Romit’s place in Rome called “Spazio” (https://www.spazionikoromito.com/) – you just can’t take the touch-of-class out of Liz’s meals !!!

3

This is a special pizza – special because it uses organic wholemeal flours. I am avoiding pizza and bread at the moment because my waistline will appreciate it but what can I say? I just had to taste some. My canny sister-in-law made off with it all.

4

Same thing to be said for this fabulous sourdough bread …

Remiss of me but understandable too … I did not take a photo of Liz’s gorgeous roasted vegetables: carrots, beetroot, baby long-shaped aubergines. Nor of the “greens”, a special type she said called “menestrella”. Well they got polished off straight away. Also, Liz had added “puntarelle” salad but we saved that for the next day. There was too much food.

And now for the pièce de résistance. Nonna Luciana’s chicken. It was huge, more like a baby turkey!

5

It is stuffed with seasoned, uncooked rice and then roasted.

6

The photos do no justice to the succulence of this dish. The skin is crisp, the flesh is moist and tender. It is tasty but it does not overwhelm. It was just downright perfect for that evening (and there were leftovers for the next day).

I asked Liz how she made it and it goes something like this: her mother grates an onion and a tomato (or two), adds some small chunks of cheese that will melt (provola) as well as some cut up salami. This is all added to the rice which is then stuffed into the cavity. The chicken is covered with foil and roasted for about one and a half hours at 200°C. The foil is then removed and the chicken finishes off cooking for a further 20-30 minutes.

Thank you Liz, grazie, grazie di cuore. And please convey our thanks to your lovely mamma in Sydney.

Brodo – Meat Stock – and What To Do with the Leftover Beef as Done in Rome

Taking stock over making stock – Oliver’s brodo

Posted on November 18, 2011by myhomefoodthatsamore

I am reposting a blog I wrote nine years ago …. one of the reasons being that I got annoyed with an article by Saveur Magazine (please see link at the bottom of this post). I hasten to add that it is well meant but the “cultural” side of it is just an irritant to an Italian, sorry but it just is. Hint: the meat in question is not “braised” in Rome, it is boiled to death. The following is what I wrote on my facebook page to introduce my recipe for Brodo and Picchiapò just now:

“The recipe touted by Saveur Magazine as “Roman Braised Beef with Tomato and Onion (Picchiapò)” is well intended of course, and not “wrong” as such – and besides it does say that it is adapted from “Tasting Rome: Fresh Flavors and Forgotten Recipes From an Ancient City” by Katie Parla and Kristina Gill. I can assure you the recipe is certainly not “forgotten” so I don’t know how it made it into the title’s claim but that’s beside the point. What does instead ‘bug’ me is how the Saveur magazine recipe misses an important point and that is … that picchiapò is a wise and thrifty outcome as a leftover of making meat stock – “brodo” as it is called in Italian. Brodo is a prized dish in this country and requires careful scrutiny. Culinarily speaking, it’s like putting the horse before the cart if you don’t mention the importance of the brodo. The Saveur recipe calls for boiling the beef but doesn’t mention what happens to the stock once the beef is done? It also adds wine to the stock which I’ve never heard of before. The meat doesn’t need to be salted and refrigreted – what for? Also, the meat is not “braised” at all: it is boiled to death. Because the meat simmers for so long (sometimes for over two hours) it loses a lot of what makes meat eaters like about eating meat. Hence the brilliant idea of turning the meat into something enjoyably edible as opposed to something that’s fit for dogs. In short: one does not set out to make piacchiapò. One makes picchiapò because one has made brodo. And a good thing too – especially for this time of year when chills and colds and flus like to muscle in on our immune system.”

HERE IS THE OLD BLOG POST – DATING BACK TO NOVEMBER 2011

On a recent trip to Tuscany, my darling Canadian friend was incredulous that she was unable to find chicken stock in food shops and supermarkets the way she can, say, at the Granville Market in Vancouver.  And for my part, I have seen beef and chicken stock for sale at a Waitrose supermarket in London.  What can I say? they are indeed a great idea.  Anything that makes life easier is a good idea.  Would I, however, buy the stuff myself? Mmmm.  Mmmm.  Mmmm.  I won’t say ‘no’ but neither will I answer a resounding or enthusiastic ‘yes’ — because for me ‘brodo’ (which is either chicken or beef or mixed meats stock) is sacred … why would I want anyone else making it?  And when I do make it, I usually make a lot and then pour some into containers which I freeze and keep handy for future use.

Thinking about all this gently jolted me into recalling my cooking credo: It is my belief that a cook’s emotions and vibrations go into the food he or she is preparing … so who is going to inject more love into my family’s meal … me or some unknown manufacturer who is making the product to sell it?  I don’t mean to imply that the product is not good or healthy … it just isn’t imbued with love, that’s all.

And besides … making stock or broth is not difficult, it just takes time — that’s all.  Here are the ingredients for a brodo that my nephew Oliver particularly appreciated … and so I now call it Oliver’s Brodo.  Here are the ingredients:

4 whole peppers, 2 cloves, 1 carrot, 1 leek, 1 onion, 2 celery sticks, 800g of capon or chicken, 200g of pork, 800g of beef.  You will also need 4 litres of water, preferably — don’t laugh — bottled water, because most tap water tastes awful or smacks of chlorine.  A bay leaf is also typical for any stock and I also added a few parsley stems.  The important thing to remember when making stock is to avoid any leaves (e.g. parsley or celery) – except for bay leaves of course.

After washing the meat and cutting it up into chunks if necessary, put it in a large stockpot and add the water.  Peel the onion and stick the two cloves into it and add the other peeled vegetables.  Turn the heat on a low heat and simmer for 3 hours (minimum 2 hours).  At first some scum might rise to the surface, which you can remove with a slotted spoon.  After that, you can put the lid on the stockpot making sure there is just a little bit of a crack to allow the steam out …

Once ready, the stock needs to be filtered and that’s it!

Removing some of the scum …

Simmering the stock for 3 hours with the lid not fully on.

WHAT DO YOU DO WITH BRODO?

Use it as a base to make other soups.  Make ‘stracciatella’ – egg drop soup.  Use it to make consommé.  Keep some handy to add flavour to any gravy or meat dish … use it to make an aspic recipe.  On its own, use it to house some very tasty tortellini or cappelletti …

No, this is not gone-off milk.  This is brodo that I had frozen.  Notice the fat lurking about at the neck of the bottle.

Don’t worry about the fat … use a strainer while pouring the brodo into a stockpot.

That can all be thrown away now …

Here are some cappelletti (little hats) that I bought … these can be made at home of course but it takes a lot of patience and not a little skill and so, let’s face it, most of us buy them.

Follow the instructions on the packet for cooking time, usually about 5 minutes.

And here they are — Ollie’s favorite: cappelletti in brodo.

WHAT ELSE?

Or make chicken corn soup!  Just add strips of the cooked chicken, some corn and a few parsley leaves, salt and pepper and bob’s your uncle.

WHAT DO YOU DO WITH THE MEAT LEFT OVER FROM THE BRODO?

Here is the meat looking thoroughly unappetising – don’t be put off.  It needs to be trimmed of any fat and chewy bits and groomed before being used to make other dishes.

You can eat the boiled meat still-hot from the soup warm or at room temperature accompanied by: mustard, or a salsa verde, or mostarda di cremona, or mayonnaise.  Or even just a drizzle of good olive oil.  The meat is incredibly tender.

You can use the cooked meat to make polpette or patties with it :

Mince the meat with a sharp knife, add an egg, some breadcrumbs or stale bread softened in water or milk, some grated parmesan cheese, minced parsley if you like it, ditto garlic, and salt and pepper.  Mix well and form meat balls which you then squash into patties.  Cover with them breadcrumbs too and quickly fry in some olive oil or butter.

Surprisingly good!  Kids will love them with ketchup or HP sauce … older kids too!

PICCHIAPO’ (pronounced peek-ya-poh)

And last but not least, you can make Picchiapo’, which is all about re-invigorating the boiled meat with onion, herbs and tomatoes …

Sauté some carrot and celery and onion in a little olive oil …

Add passasta di pomodoro (tomato sauce) after a while …

Simmer happily for about 15 minutes or so …

Here is that unappetising meat again … before … and

And here it is again, after it has been groomed and cut up.

Add the meat to the happy sauce and mix well … add salt and pepper and chilli flakes too if you like.

The meat is already cooked so basically it’s only a question of letting it absorb taste and warm up.

Piacchiapo’ …. ready to be served with lots of freshly cut parsley. Or marjoram. You could even sneak in some mint.

There is a lot to that saying “Waste not, want not” … but in actual fact, especially for the older generations in Italy, the above dishes are not thought of merely as ‘leftovers’. These are yummy dishes which they look forward to eating as an added bonus of making brodo!

END OF OLD POST

https://www.saveur.com/picchiapo-roman-italian-braised-beef-recipe

Chicken Corn Soup

What a pretty bowl, isn’t it?

IMG_8389

I tasted chicken corn soup for the first time at a Chinese restaurant in Karachi, circa 1976 and thought it superb.  I was only twenty years old and this was my first Chinese restaurant experience, and though I am sure I ate all kinds of other Chinese dishes there during my stay in Karachi, that soup is the only one I remember.  Who knows whether it is even an authentic Chinese recipe?

Whatever.  I tried to recreate it about a decade later when I needed a starter for the rest of my dinner, this time based on a proper Chinese recipe, taught to me by my friend Sing Mei who hailed from Hong Kong.  It entailed steaming a fish whole and then pouring boiling hot oil (!) over it to render the fish, and the other ingredients (garlic, ginger, parsley) “crisp”.  In Italy, it is thoroughly unusual to mix fish and fowl in the course of the same meal but not so, as we know, elsewhere.  Served with plain rice, delicious.

Later still, this soup became THE soup to turn to in times of stress, illness and general desolation.  It is also very tasty when one is happy – there is no disputing that, do be reassured.  It’s good all round – though perhaps best eaten during the colder months of the year naturally.

IMG_8391

IMG_8392

Its ingredients have all the credentials for a health-promoting outcome, witness:

Chicken stock, chicken flesh, ginger, parsley, spring onions, black pepper, a teensy teensy bit of lemon zest or, failing that, a few drops of lemon juice.  Last but not least, the corn.  The corn adds a touch of  sweetness.

It does take some time to prepare, to be sure, but the recipe presents no difficulty even for the beginner.

Simmer a chicken, cut into pieces, in plenty of water and add one carrot, one onion and one celery stick.  Cook it for about three quarters of an hour, with the lid on for the first half hour.  Once the chicken is cool enough to handle, remove the skin and bones and keep and slice the flesh.  (Remove the vegetables from the chicken stock.  Throw them away.)

Slice the ginger into thin slices, add to the chicken stock, together with all the other ingredients mentioned above, bring to a boil and simmer for about 15 minutes.  Add salt.  Add pepper.  Taste, taste and taste until it’s perfect.

Served piping hot.  If you have one, use a silver spoon – this is a regal soup.

Whatever your electoral preferences for the USA, it is pretty much nail-biting, cliff-hanging stuff – especially considering that Covid is still in our midst.  A nice hot plate of chicken corn soup will not go astray, on the contrary.    In victory or defeat – we still have to eat.

I am dedicating this post to my vivacious, artistic and delightfully funny friend Rosheen Rahim, the girl with the best giggle in the whole world, who will no doubt share my fond memories of Chinese dinners in Karachi when she and I were still dripping-wet behind the ears and as green as a youngster is chlorphyllically allowed to be.  I long to go and visit her in Toronto, who knows, maybe we can make chicken corn soup together.

 

IMG_8395

By the way, you could substitute coriander for the parsley if you prefer.  Also, but I don’t advise it, you could add “maizena” (corn flour) to thicken it.

A Margarita for This Time of Year

1

A friend who was invited to my birthday dinner a few weeks ago told me off for not taking photos of the food I had cooked to use for a future blog post.  “But it’s Mexican!”, I protested.  “So what!”, she scolded.  I see her point and I’d like you to see mine.  I write about Italian food, because I feel comfortable and culturally honest writing about Italian food.  That and I am half Italian and am married to an Italian and have lived uninterruptedly in Italy since 1977.   I do like cooking Mexican dishes – the few I know of.  But I am not Mexican and have never been to Mexico.  The only Mexican food I have eaten is chez friends who are in exactly the same situation as me and once, once only, have I eaten at a Mexican restaurant in California (2002).  A Californian friend did bring me back some proper Mexican chiles, dry ones that is, two years ago which I have incorporated in my Mexican renditions.  But my question is: what does a REAL Mexican dish taste like?

Let’s start with guacamole.  Or rather, with avocado.  And then we’ll get to Margaritas.

3

The first time I ever had an avocado was at a somewhat formal Sunday lunch, my last year at boarding school in England (1975).  The avocado was served halved length-wise, topped with a very normal vinaigrette.  My host looked very pleased with himself for proposing such a delicacy and responded to my perplexed expression.  “It’s an avocado pear, “ he explained.  I fell in love such ‘pears’ and continued to serve them that way (sometimes with the addition of prawns) for many years.  My husband continues to like it served that way on occasion.  I didn’t find out about avocadoes and Mexico until decades later!

2

4

The lady busy at work above is my friend Liz – she was helping me out and making quesadillas.

It was my friend Clarissa Mitchell who taught me how to make a guacamole in the late 1980s.  Clarissa also taught me how to cook some basic Thai dishes (she had lived and studied in Thailand).  She would bring fresh ginger from London to Rome at a time when I don’t think it was even sold here!  And Clarissa and I also prepared some Indian and Lebanese dishes when we cooked together – but at least I did have an inkling of those cuisines, my family had lived in those countries.

Our story? Clarissa and I had been at school together in what was then Dacca, capital of East Pakistan, and now respectively Dhaka, Bangladesh.  Her father used to work for the British Council and she had grown up all over the place: Croatia, Japan, Egypt, Austria (her mother was Austrian).  She had been home schooled by her father on a long sea voyage. She had two older brothers and was a lot more grown up than I was.  She was reading sci fi novels when I was still loving Enid Blyton.  And is was she, naughty girl, who taught me how to smoke in the first place (although I didn’t become an addict until I was twenty).  Oh, I forgot to mention – she and I were born exactly the same day.  So there was a sort of “fellow-twin” air of friendship between us, and the fact that we both had parents of different nationalities was an added bond.

We were packed off to boarding school the same year, when we were almost thirteen.  Sadly, we lost touch as the years went by.  Later, she told me that she had a terrible culture shock upon going to England and in later life, much though she loved Great Britain, she never really felt at home there.  She tried Italy for a whle, even wanting to buy a house in the country in Umbria, but India ended up becoming her putative homeland.

Clarissa became a student at the Hornsey School of Art in the late 1970s and exhibited at the contemporary jewellery Loot exhibitions from 1979. She moved to the Royal College of Art and developed her work in titanium and niobium. These metals became increasingly popular in the late 1970s and early 1980s and Cosmopolitan Magazine mentioned her in one of their articles (she had designed a bracelet for Prince Charles, I seem to remember). I recognised her face immediately and sent a letter to her care of the magazine (I wrote them a letter explaining the situation and left the envelope containing my letter to her open for their perusal, so that they could see it was not spam).  She responded with warmth and enthusiasm and we gradually picked up where we left off, writing the occasional letter to one another.  I was based in Rome and she in London and I did finally meet her in person again when I was on a visit.  She was unable to come to my wedding but came to visit us for the first time, eventually, when our daughter was a toddler.  She even found work in Rome for a while and we were very close. 

I was sad when she left for a super job in India, working for the Maharajah of Jodpur (to open a shop amongst other things). She ended up reviving the ancient Rajasthani art of block printing and tent making for him.  Quote from downtoearth.com: Artistic tents, recreated by Clarissa Mitchell -a designer -capture the exotic and practical aspects of a nomadic tradition and provide a new expression to Rajasthani skill. Rajasthan, says Clarissa, has offered much in terms of designs, textiles, crafts and miniatures, among numerous other forms of arts.  “Everybody seemed to be interested in designing clothes and furniture, but nobody thought about designer tents,” she says. Each tent is made by using water- proof canvas for the outer fly, with wood-block prints on cotton sheets for the interiors done in soft natural colours. The first tents were put up at Pushkar in 1993, informs Clarissa, who operates from Jodhpur and London.” 

Clarissa and a partner were later to create the company called the Raj Tent Club (www.rajtentclub.com) and she worked very hard for her beautiful creations and travelled much, consorting with the rich and some famous, including Lord Glenconner of Mustique Island fame.  She invited my husband and me to visit her in India countless times and we did eventually go in the Spring of 2001 and she organised a fabulous time for us in New Delhi and Rajasthan.  What one calls a memorable holiday.  My outgoing suitcase contained all kinds of Italian goodies that I knew she loved, including wine, parmigiano, pecorino and fresh artichokes and mozzarella.  I am a bit of a camel traveller, can’t travel without food and my hump is cleverly concealed from would-be nosy custom inspectors.

5

Alas, Clarissa’s life did not provide her with a steady partner, marriage or children though I know for sure she was rather hoping her life would include this.  C’est la vie.  My children were extremely fond of their “aunt” Clarissa and the interesting presents she always brought them. She used to read to them too. She would have made a great mum.  Clarissa never felt sorry for herself, however, and was a source of great company and joy for everyone, and a very loving aunt and sister, not to mention loyal friend. 

She had always been spiritually “inclined” and she deepened her practice of yoga and learning of ancient Vedic traditions and knowledge, and even learned Sanskrit, and co-authored two books on ancient Indian wisdom and traditions.  I’ll be honest, it got a bit ‘much’ for me after a while – meaning, it was as if she had become some kind of pseudo-religious person much like a nun in our Catholic tradition.  Her pursuit of truth seemed to include harsh activities such as jumping into freezing cold lakes in Northern India and having to wake up at 5 a.m.  On her last visit to us in Frascati, she told me to ‘hold’ the garlic because it would interfere with her meditation.  No amount of assuaging her that (as she very well knew in any case) Italian food does indeed contain garlic but not in the same dose and intensity as other cuisines worked in convincing her otherwise. And I of course obliged. She had always been a vegetarian but now she did not drink wine any more.  It wasn’t that she had become disapproving of people who did drink, no.  It was that she no longer found pleasure in drinking – so fair enough.  This visit coincided with my husband’s birthday and as I was serving champagne that evening she reached for a glass and, to my understandable surprise, asked me to serve her some with a sweet smile on her face.  She probably drank only two sips to my husband’s good health but there you go: she wasn’t about to refrain from wishing people well.  Clarissa the class act, always.5a

Clarissa did fall in love, deeply, in her forties, when living in Delhi, just months before we went to visit her.  She told me it had been a case of love at first sight, with memories of a previous life startling her as she shook hands with him.  Ironically, she had just concluded that life in New Delhi was getting too difficult for her and wanted to return to London for good.  And then, by chance, a friend had asked her could she take in a friend for a couple of days? And that’s how they met.  Let’s call him Kumar.  She spent the rest of her life chasing after this Kumar fella.  Yes, you’ve guessed, I was not a fan.

I did get to meet him and can see why she fell under his spell, he was tall and handsome and had what people call “personality”.  He had been married, and had a teenage son, had lived both in Switzerland and California and had been, for want of a better expression, a bit of a lad, sowing oats and goodness knows what else. Until he had his damascene moment and decided to return to his homeland (India) and become a holy man.  Put bluntly: no sex.  He ended up living with her (no sex) for about six months, and his son came on visits, Clarissa and he grew very fond of one another. From what she said, it seemed that Kumar had feelings for her too but would not renege on his course of action, his new chosen peripatetic guru lifestyle, and all they could be was be friends. A bit like Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Clare I suppose. (Funny. Now that I think about it, she and I went for a day trip to Assisi just before she left for India.)

All very well, say I now and said so then, sniff sniff of disapproval and hands on irritated hips: what the hell, if you are really fond of this woman, and know she is desperately in love with you, then chase her away, cut her loose and give her the chance of getting over you, and perhaps finding another man!  Holy man my foot, he broke her heart. She returned to England and called me.  She was so sad, but so sad, soooo sad and was weeping on the phone to me, hardly able to speak.  I can’t forget. I felt so useless.  All I could do was tell her to carry on weeping without having to talk, so at least she knew she was not weeping alone.  I could hear sniffles.  Always a lady Clarissa: I would have sobbed loudly, wailed and cursed. 

Less than a year later she informs me she has breast cancer. She had the lumpectomy, followed by radiotherapy.  She changed her diet and ate tons of turmeric and other interesting Indian herbs and Ayurvedic treatments and all seemed to be going so well.  She sold her flat in London and moved to Brighton to be near the sea and that’s where I saw her last, when her cancer had returned, for good this time.  She was truly skinny by then and had very little strength.  I was taken by her stylish home, her sweetness in preparing a delicious spicy meal for me. And our conversation, as always, never waned.  In her small and super-cool study, with a big window overlooking the sea in the distance, was her laptop.  And guess what was on her screen shot?  A photo of Kumar smiling at the camera.  “Isn’t that a lovely photo?” she asked.  “Yes,” I said without having to lie thank goodness, the photo was indeed a good one.  But I sighed inwardly – it was so bloody obvious that she was still in love with him.  “I am thinking of selling up this flat, you know, and moving to the mountains in Switzerland, where I can continue to teach yoga etc. The mountain air will do me good.”   And guess who else was going to be in that place in Switzerland, hmmm?  She would have moved anywhere to be near to him, for the little scraps he might give her.

So … it is my belief, unsubstantiated by any medical foundation, that her cancer was a result of heartbreak, all because of that previous-lives, no-sex Kumar.  She was the healthiest person I knew, had done yoga all her life, ate very proper and life affirming foods, and what have you.  He, in turn, was subject to a stroke and ended up being sickly and with heart problems.  When she found out that he was very very sick indeed, she flew out to New Delhi, a shadow of her former self, weighing next to nothing, to go and tend to him. 

She died in hospital a few weeks later, as her mother (with whom I spoke later) knew she would.  Well, at least she had that, didn’t she, my dear friend Clarissa: true abiding love.  For it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, goes the proverb.  Or, as my favourite Camus puts it: “For there is merely bad luck in not being loved; there is misfortune in not loving. ”

6

I did not realise, when I was in the midst of writing this blog post, that I would end up writing at such cathartic length about my beautiful friend Clarissa.  She died just before our birthday in 2014, two years shy of turning sixty.  And I still miss her.  And I stll think of her when I make guacamole! When, also, I make Margaritas – because, as we all know, both of these put one in a fabulous mood.  And when I reminisce about Clarissa, it is the fabulous mood I want to bring to mind. 

Actually, it is not I but my husband who concocts a spiffing Margarita.  The path we follow is the arcane sounding Three-Double-Two ( 3-2-2 ).  That is: three parts of Tequila to two parts equally of freshly squeezed lime juice and Triple Sec.  Plenty of ice and salt on the rim of the glass. 

Once, Clarissa came to visit when our baby boy was some months old (i.e. under a year).  I was still breast feeding him.  My husband went to pick Clarissa up at the airport while I got dinner sorted.  With a Margarita to kick it off.  We hugged and we kissed and I had just the one Margarita, plus some wine, admittedly, during dinner.  Then I excused myself and went off to nurse my little boy.  On our bed.  The long and the short of it is that I fell asleep with my baby boy and didn’t see Clarissa until breakfast the next day.  You can imagine what epithets were thrown my way, the teasing was pretty merciless, yes.  It was then that I realised just how powerful a Margarita can be – one was plenty.

7

Segue to years later, when our son would have been around ten or eleven.  I was home, the kids were doing their homework, it was evening and I was about to prepare dinner.   A feeling of discomfort, of a cold coming my way.  I suddenly get a craving for a Margarita.  My husband ever obliging in such cases kindly acknowledges my damsel in distress request and trots out to fetch some limes.  Rushes home and proceeds to make me a Maragarita like you wouldn’t believe.  “You know darling, maybe this craving of mine is my body’s way of telling me I need extra amounts of Vitamin C, you know, for the immune system.  Hmm? Because of course lime juice is chock-a-block full of Vitamin C, no?” I rabbit on sheepishly.  And yet.  Dunno.  It DID seem to do the trick – and it DID ward off the cold. 

Segue even more years later and our grown-up son is at Uni in London and we are on the phone.

“So, how are you bello? Tutto bene?” I ask my son.  “What have you been up to?”  His response is a little strange to take in.  He tells me he had a Margarita earlier on.  “Strange” because this son of ours was basically a teetotaller at that time. 

 “Oh really?” I chirp on, trying to minimise my bemusement.  “Did you have a nice time with your friends?” 

“Oh no.  It was just that I was feeling under the weather and getting worried that I might be coming down with a cold.”   

Moral of the story?  You never can tell when your children are accidentally eavesdropping on you! 

8

So, my friends.  It’s that time of year.  I don’t even want to mention that dastardly nasty C word.  But let us remember that even an ordinary flu or cold are still a nuisance.  It was a wonderfully sunny day this morning at the outdoor market near Ariccia.  And yet, coming home, did I detect a slight lack of energy in my being?

Hmm. Time for a Margarita.

Salud!

 

 

 

Introducing (Roll of Drums) The “Stove-Top” Lasagna: How a Pumpkin Tortello Turned into a Pumpkin Lasagna

When the cat’s away (i.e. my husband or even my children) … muggins here will eat pumpkin or squash or whatever other name is used for that big fat orange vegetable.  A vegetable whose taste does not match its bright colour.  Let’s face it, the very fact that one has to add a touch of “this, that and the other” in order to make any pumpkin recipe edible is testament to its blandness.  But bland can be grand and that’s why people all over the world continue to rave about it.  Pumpkin soup, pumpkin pie and here in Italy, besides pumpkin risotto, there are also those soft cushions of  pasta stuffed with pumpkin known as “tortelli” (“ravioli” also).   

I was having two neighbours over to supper yesterday (two girlfriends).  I thought they would enjoy “tortelli di zucca” made the way they do in the Emilia town of Modena.   Earlier in the day, I had bought some ready-made pasta sheets in the fridge compartment of the supermarket.  This might not constitute a problem for you but it does for me.   Let me explain why, why I have to ‘confess’ to letting the side down on two accounts: a) it is because I hold forth so often on the moral advisability of boycotting supermarkets wherever grocery shops are bountiful in one’s living area and b) it is because I hold forth on how easy it is to make home-made pasta.  So this is what happens when one, hands on hips,  holds forth a lot – having to swallow humble pie. I did not get away with it, you see.

It turns out that said pasta sheets are all very well if you want to make a lasagna but just rubbish if you want to carve out tortelli or ravioli.  The dough was just not elastic enough.  Tortelli take a few minutes to cook in boiling water.  A lasagna, instead, can take upwards of 30 minutes in a pre-heated oven.  What to do, what to do, what to do?  Say that fast enough and you’ll sound like a cartoon owl.  But owls are wise, remember!  And so … hey presto and abracadabra, I realised that I had to “make do” by switching, not just from tortello to lasagna but from tortello to STOVE-TOP lasagna-mode.  Ha! Brilliant, even if I say so myself.  Seriously, who knew it was even possible or advisable? Very satisfied with my necessity-mother-of-invention self, round of applause please as I graciously incline my head with hands-on-heart in modest recognition.

THE RECIPE

Well, the recipe is easy enough.  Halve or quarter a pumpkin and bake in the oven for about half an hour at 180° or until cooked.  Allow to cool and then remove the peel/skin.  Chop up an onion very finely and cook but do not brown in a saucepan with some butter and some olive oil.  Mash up the cooked pumpkin.  Season it with salt, pepper, and some grated nutmeg.  Now place the pumpkin in the saucepan and cook for a while – it shouldn’t be ‘soggy’, needs to be dry-ish.  While it is still hot, transfer to a bowl and add a good amount of freshly grated parmigiano.  Taste, taste, taste and when you are happy with the taste, let the cooking begin!

Avail yourself of a sauté pan or any saucepan you happen to have.  Place on burner and add a nice fat lump of butter and some torn (or, if  you are in the mood, thinly sliced) leaves of sage.  Wait for the butter to melt and now place two of the pasta sheets on the bottom of the saucepan.  Turn the heat off.  Spoon some of the pumpkin mixture over the lasagne sheets, add more sage, and then cover the mixture with two more sheets.  Make another two (or three) layers like this.  Add more butter to the top sheet.  Then when you’re ready, turn the heat on again and cover with a lid. 

I’ll be scrupulously honest with you: I can’t remember how long it took for this lasagna to cook but it was well under 15 minutes.  I did look in after a while and was worried it might dry up and burn (a lasagne will usually contain béchamel or cream and plenty of sauce and all I had was melted butter).  I poured a ladle of meat stock I happened to have and let it cook some more.  After a while, I turned the lasagna upside down in the pan and let it cook a little more without the lid, so that the bottom sheet became invitingly crisp.

Served nice and hot with plenty of parmigiano sprinkled on top.  A few drops of balsamic vinegar would not have gone amiss but they did not come to mind.  And it was very good, yes very good indeed, the girls really like it.  So there you go! 

There was some left over today and my husband, who does not like to be wasteful, conceded that it was “all right”.  Considering he is not a fan, I was immensely chuffed. When you look at the photos, those ‘dark’ bits are not truffle by the way (sigh), they are just dark green sage leaves.

IMG_8369

IMG_8368

All Hail A Sauce for both Steak and Snail (Amongst other Dishes)!

Judging from the response to my previous post, the one regarding snails, a post I actually wrote many years ago, I could not fail to appreciate that snails entice only a very small portion of society.  Chacun à son gout and all that and I will not take up a zealous quest to reform people’s gustatory orientation.  That said, I like to be inclusive so, dear Reader, even though this post is dedicated to those who do indeed enjoy a platter of snails, the recipe for the sauce lends itself to enhancing other dishes too, a good steak for instance.  My inclusive bent does not extend to vegans I realise because it includes butter but the market now abounds with vegan butters and I am sure they would make an adequate substitute.  The sauce would probably be delicious melting over boiled potatoes or adding zing to the humblest  (and hence cheapest) of fishes.  A spoonful here and there would up the ante in any stew be it carnivore, vegetarian or vegan.  And an added bonus is that one can freeze it, hip hip hurrah.

I am inclined to think that the sauce is very ‘old school’ and rooted in French cuisine, made up as it is of butter aplenty, parsley and garlic.  I remember by mother making something almost identical to accompany a fillet mignon and she told me she had picked up the recipe in Sweden, in the 1950s, where it was most likely served in elegant restaurants at a time when posh nosh meant French cuisine coursing through the courses.

By accident of birth, I am a half-aunt to a niece who is actually six months older than I am (my Swedish father was her grandfather, that’s the connexion, making her father my half brother).  Her name is Ulrika and she says I’m her favourite aunt, which is of course true since no other aunt is alive to vie with me for her affections.  And I must say that, as nieces go, she is a gem and comes and visits at least once a year.  She and I share a dread of cold climes and a passionate love for warm weather and swimming in the sea.  As a proper Swede (I am only half Swedish), she is able to bathe in temperatures that Nordics consider ‘normal’ whereas I can only deal with waters that are fit for sissies like me.  My name is Jo and people who love me have come to call the correct swimming temperature as “Jo proof”. 

Well may you mock but this disinclination of mine for the cold prevents me from falling in love with most of the coastline of Sardinia, for instance.  The waters and beaches of Sardinia are world famous for their pristine and sometimes wild beauty (the Aga Khan who built up the exclusive resorts in the early 1960s wasn’t just a pretty face you know) but you can keep most of them: too cold, too cold, too cold. I tried swimming in the Atlantic waters of Portugal once and got as far as my big toe.  Same thing of a July in California somewhere.  Stunning beach, unfriendly cold water.  It was then that it was brought home to me just why the Mediterranean became so popular with the aristos and the very wealthy of yore …. it wasn’t only the picturesqueness of Southern France or Capri, nor the breathtaking views of natural beauty to take in: it was the warm waters too!  The British Isles have beaches that their subjects can be immodestly proud of but, unless there is a heat wave such as the one in 1976 which saw me swimming in Bournemouth, they are a natatory disincentive for the likes of me.

I am aware that I am babbling on like a brook going hither and thither in my meanderings but, stay with me, there is a reason.  Which is: just like the optimum temperature for an enjoyable swim, a dinner should be composed of an optimum array of dishes to suit all those partaking of the meal.  The pleasure principle.  Eating for pleasure and not just for sustenance.  In 2008, Geoff Andrews published a book called “The Slow Food Story: Politics and Pleasure”.  Please allow me to quote Amazon’s review.

 “The Slow Food movement was established in Italy as a response to the dominance of fast food chains, supermarkets, and large-scale agribusiness. Defending “the universal right to pleasure,” it promotes food production and consumption based on “good, clean, and fair” local products. In twenty years Slow Food has grown into an international organisation with more than 80,000 members in over 100 countries. With roots in the 1960s and 1970s counter-culture, Slow Food’s distinctive politics link gastronomic pleasure and environmental responsibility. The movement crosses the left-right divide to embrace both the conservative desire to preserve traditional rural communities and an alternative “virtuous” idea of globalisation. In the first in-depth study of the fascinating politics of Slow Food, Geoff Andrews shows that the alternative future it offers can be extended to all aspects of modern life. The Slow Food Story is an extensive critique of the fast-moving, work-obsessed contemporary capitalist culture.”

Whatever your political or spiritual views, you can’t deny that most of us live in a rush.  It took Covid lockdown to slow us down.  The narrative I want to underscore is that life is too short and that we, those of us who are lucky enough to afford good (simple even) food on the table, should reconsider the pleasure of dining as one of life’s paramount activities. In the last decades, in my experience at least, it seems to me that people worry about WHAT to eat, afraid of putting on weight, afraid of eating foods that are deemed unhealthy these days, afraid of not fitting in with the latest politically correct nourishment directives, to the point that meals become a source of anxiety instead of pleasure.  Two syndromes to prove my point: orthorexia and citophobia. It does not surprise me that the Slow Movement originated in Italy where eating can easily be considered a national past-time; yet even in this country anxiety over food and eating is doing its damage.   Thank goodness for people like us, no?

Ulrika’s partner is Juan and despite his Spanish name he too is Swedish. Unlike Ulrika and me, he can weather and even enjoy any temperature storm and is totally at ease camping in the woods in Sweden during the Winter (!), sleeping in special hammocks.  Ulrika and I just raise our eyes heavenwards in shivering disbelief and disapproval but there you go … it takes all sorts to make the world go round.  Ulrika loathes and abhors snails whereas Juan is rather partial to them.  I espied some farmed snails at the covered market in Frascati just days before their arrival last Summer and lovingly bought some for Juan, picturing his smiling face on being told the news.  Ulrika’s disgust knew enough bounds to look the other way as we seated ourselves to the dinner table to enjoy the snails cooked Juan’s way but I made sure that she too had something delicious to eat.  The meal had to be Ulrika-proof as well as Juan-friendly.

INGREDIENTS

250g of butter, a big bunch of parsley, as many or as few cloves of garlic as you prefer, pinch of salt.  Plenty of bread to mop up any sauce on the plate.

WHAT TO DO

Put all the ingredients in a blender and process until creamy smooth. Spoon the mixture over the previously cleaned, boiled, cooled down snails (see previous blog for all this) and place in a hot oven for a few minutes –  basically the time it takes for the butter to melt and coat and season the snails.

FREEZING

You can spoon the mixture onto some parchment paper and roll it into a log shape.  Place in freezer and, when required,  remove from freezer until still very firm.  Slice rounds off to put over a hot steak or potatoes or put to any other culinary use you prefer.

2

3

1

5

 

Juan was very veeeery happy with his snails!

Making Clarified Butter – Why Not?

This is a very old post, from my previous blog. Clarified butter may be “old school” but it is never “agé”. And besides, ghee IS clarified butter.

https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2010/11/04/lets-be-amused-making-clarified-butter/

Let’s be amused … making clarified butter

Posted on November 4, 2010by myhomefoodthatsamore

I was very amused by an ad on British TV (dating back to the mid 1980s I think) for Rawlings Indian Tonic Water … you know, for gin and tonic.  In it are featured a threesome made up of a very old Queen Victoria, a very stately Mr Rawlings and, in attendance,  a very handsome and younger turban-clad Indian manservant, Tandoori.

Picture the scene if you please: Queen Victoria telephones Mr Rawlings using the very first version of a telephone … and the conversation unfolds as follows:

Queen Victoria (rather pompously and condescendingly):  Mr Rawlings, We find your tonic water most refreshing and We have today ordered another bottle.

Mr Rawlings (very chuffed indeed by this compliment): Thank you very much Ma’am.

Queen Victoria: We are intrigued, Mr Rawlings, as to why it is called Indian tonic water?

Mr Rawlings, now visibly flustered by this question to which he obviously does not know the answer, turns to Tandoori, and, covering the telephone mouthpiece so that Queen Victoria won’t hear him, asks him:

Mr Rawlings:  Tandoori, why do we call it Indian Tonic water?

And the answer is:

Tandoori: Why not?

Mr Rawlings (hastily making up something credible):I regret, Ma’am, but that must remain of necessity a trade secret.

Queen Victoria hangs up in response.

Mr Rawlings (in a resigned voice): She was not amused.

Love it!

And that’s how I feel about making clarified butter.  About eight years ago, a friend popped round in the late afternoon for a quick cup of tea because she had to pick her children up from some activity or other (and yes, we do drink tea in Italy! Though nowhere nearly as much as in other countries and milk in one’s tea is unheard of).  And there we were, deep in conversation, sipping our tea when she turned to the stove top and asked me what I was cooking.  She was quite nonplussed when I answered that, actually, I was making clarified butter.  “I never heard of anyone making clarified butter just like that in the middle of the afternoon!“ she exclaimed, wondering what on earth would drive anyone to do such a thing.

Just like Tandoori in the above sketch, however, my answer was and is : Why not?

It’s not actually something that one “makes” as such… one lets it “happen”. And, once ready, the clarified butter keeps forever in the fridge.  It requires a fairly large amount of butter (at least 500g) otherwise it would not be worth the endeaver, and there is some wastage in the process. Unless you are willing to use a dropper (and even that might not work), there is no way that you can filter all of the melted butter.

This time I used a whole kilo of butter!  It needs a double boiler so that the butter can melt bain-marie style … a slotted spoon for removing the caseous cheesy part of the butter … a sieve … and a glass jar for storing the clarified butter in the fridge.

It requires quite a long time before the butter melts properly, so that any water contained therein evaporates and so that it separates into a liquid gold and into a white caseous sticky substance.  The butter should melt away for one hour, which is a fairly long stretch of time … but it doesn’t need any special attention at all.  You can read a book or watch a film while it’s “happening”.

I do not have a large enough double-boiler and I expect not many people do … So you might do worse than copy my necessity-mother-of-invention solution which was a pair of  kitchen tongs.

Pour in some water and switch on heat and pop in the  butter and …

1 kg of butter!

starting to  melt …

The “stuff” that rises to the service is we do NOT want … and that’s what the slotted spoon is for

every little bit has to be removed!

This is what gets thrown away …

And this is what we keep and treasure.  Do this gently and filter slowly … and if you are a purist (I aim to be merely pure of heart), you can use a muslin cloth inside the sieve.

This part is easy enough …

And this is when it gets tricky: careful — you only want the liquid gold, not the white stuff

Notice that some of the clarified butter gets left behind with the white stuff: that’s because there is no way I could sieve any more into the glass jar without the white stuff trailing in too.

Liquid gold … isn’t it an amazing colour!

P.S.  If you want to see the Rawlings ad in all its silly glory, click on

http://www.tellyads.com/show_movie_vintage.php?filename=VA0479

And Old Post about Snails

I am posting this once again becaue there are lots of photos showing just how cumbersome it is to TREAT the snails before cooking them. The cooking part ends up being really easy … The next post will be how I cooked them last summer, or rather how a welcome guest did.

Adventure at a snail’s pace

Posted on December 5, 2011by myhomefoodthatsamore

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear: what an adventure!  WHAT possessed me to want to cook snails?  I tell you, these farmers markets … they’re ‘dangerous’! With their colourful and scented wares, their clever and friendly banter, their slow-living pace, they entrance and entreat and bewitch you into wanting to try all kinds of recipes that are best left to the experts.

So there I was, some time in October, enjoying a leisurely wander around the Ariccia weekend Farmers Market, when I came to the stall selling snails.  A sensible person would have gazed at the stall for a few seconds and moved on …

Imperial snails, no less!  Loredana Isopo smiles as she talks to me about them.

Snails are notoriously time-consuming to clean … they need to spend something like 24 hours in water which has to be changed at least 4 or 5 times.  They are still alive during this cleansing process.  Here at the stall, the sales pitch is brilliant: these beauties have already been cleaned!  All you need to do is cook them!  And we EVEN provide a few recipes!  Oh, and did I tell you that snails are protein-rich and nutritious too, containing many essential amino acids and other goodies such as calcium, phosphorous, iron and copper!  What is a poor girl to do?  Of course I gave in and bought some.

“You shall rue the day” is an expression in old films that meant very little to me until the time came for me to deal with snails.

It didn’t start off too badly … The very first thing to do was to put the snails in a large tub of water and leave them there for five minutes.  At this point, because they are still alive, the snails will start peeking out of their shell.  As they start sliding out of their shell, they need to be transferred to another container, with a lid on top to stop them from escaping.  Any snail that shows no sign of life is to be thrown away.

And there were very few actually.  Here are the dead snails and other ‘bits’ that left their mark on the tub of water.

And here, instead, are the snails that were put into my double-boiler pasta pot for safe-keeping, very much alive and wanting to move about.

You see how clingy they are! and why it’s a jolly good idea to keep them under a lid!

Now, then.  The next bit consisted in giving them one last clean, very much as one would with venus clams or vongole, under cold water.  To my credit, I am such a genius when it comes to diminishing work, I came up with the idea of using the colander part of my pasta pot because a) it would make it easier to drain the snails of the water and b) it would stop them trying to escape.

I used a wooden spoon to swirl them around and encourage the removal of ‘bits’ we’d rather not ingest.

Upsy-daisy … see how easy the pasta-pot colander makes this job!

The water is murky and slimy … and so of course I got rid of it and poured more cold water into the tub, to give the snails another bath.

I did this until the water was completely clean … about 5 times, if I remember correctly.

I put a lid on them and sighed.  I took in the portentous task that now lay before me and pondered on the meaning of the verb ‘rue’.  I was losing my nerve, I kid you not.

Aaaagh! Heeeelp!  I looked to my husband for succour … he’s usually very good at encouraging me but even he did a double-take at the prospect of serial snail-killing and came up with the excellent idea of a glass of wine, to fortify my wavering resolve.  After that, I was left on my own.

There, dear Reader, you have before you 1 kg of live snails being hurtled into a pot of warm water.  I was told the water had to be a pleasant temperature in order to induce the snails to come out of their shell.  This makes it easier later on to eat them.  There is less tugging to be done.

See how they enjoy sliding out of their shell and start wanting to move out of the pot …

And then the moment of no-return.  The lid goes on and the snails’ fate is sealed.  The heat is turned up and they simmer for about 10 minutes.

Now is the time to add an onion, a carrot, a celery stick and some parsley.

I also added 1 bay leaf (which you can’t see) and put the lid back on again and simmered the snails for another 30 minutes.

At the end of 30 minutes and steaming.  I let the cooking water cool a bit and then drained the snails and set them aside.

THE SAUCE

This is a very typical and plain way of cooking the snails, alla romana – the Roman way.  Basically, the snails get to be tarted up in a tomato sauce which includes garlic and anchovy.

And this was my sauce ‘mistake’.  I should have sautéed the garlic FIRST and THEN added   the anchovy.  Instead, I cooked them both together … and this detracted from the quality of the sauce at the final stage.   Also, I added 1 anchovy too many … the anchovy is a taste enhancener and should ‘melt’ into the sauce and not be directly perceptible, whereas the amount I put in resulted in an excessive textural after-taste.

The tomatoes …

Cooking the sauce for about 15 minutes …

Lots of chopped parsley and some chilli for those who like it …

A little extra extra virgin olive oil …

Mix everything very well and simmer for about 5 minutes, to get the snails hot again.  And serve.

And do I have a photo of the snails served? No.

Were they good?  Mmmm.  They were ‘all right’ — but nothing to write home about.  And especially not considering the amount of work and angst involved.  The sauce, which in theory was the easiest part, is what let the dish down — and that was my fault, as explained above.

Ah well … another example of a  ‘beautiful Catastrophe’ in the kitchen! (see my post on kitchen catastrophes dated 17th Februaty 2011 and called “What to seek in Zorba the Greek).

Who knows … I  might muster a little courage some time in the near future and have another ‘go’ at snails!  And when I do so, I shall get buy them from Loredana.

http://www.lumacaimperiale.com

Swordfish Couscous

Dear Readers – WordPress has changed its way of doing things and despite the help of a very nice young person working for them, I still haven’t mastered the art of uploading photos where I want them. So if you wan to have a look at a photo of today’s recipe, just scroll straight to the end and then come back to read. Thanks.

——————————————————————————————————

My father-in-law Giose, pronounced Joh-zay and shortened from the very Biblical name Jehosaphat (I don’t know what possessed his parents to saddle him with such a ponderous appellation) turned 91 yesterday and asked me whether I would cook a seafood dinner to celebrate.  There were going to be nine of us family member). What do you think? Of course! 

I really love cooking for celebrations and it got my creative juices going.  When I say ‘creative’ it also translates into the fact that I have to cater the meal because my mother-in-law, Maria, is now in a wheel chair and hard to shift.  She suffers from Alzheimers too but that’s another tragic story.  Luckily, we live in the same building so schlepping the food from our place to theirs is a question of meters and not miles.  Even so, cooking food that needs to be transported presents extra challenges, logistically speaking, and entails an approach that is different from that of preparing a meal that can be enjoyed in one’s own home.  All this to say that I had to come up with a menu that would be in my favour, as it were, and not get my knickers in too much of a prepping twist.

Basically, my idea was to serve lots of antipasti and not just one measly starter/appetizer – that way blood sugar levels rise and the rest of the meal can be awaited in joyous expectation .  When people see lots of food on the table something magical happens.  They may ‘complain’ that “oh-my-gosh this is far too much” but eventually curiosity takes over and they dig in to their heart’s content, picking and choosing.   Also, and this is something people forget to consider at times, whenever there is ‘too much’ it means that there will be leftovers for the next day, another strong point in favour of abundance.

Anyway, in the middle of thinking about the menu the day before, I came up with an idea for a new dish which I have dubbed Giosè’s Couscous. 

Ingredients:

Fish stock with which to revive the couscous.  Add some lemon juice to the fish stock.
Rounds of courgettes which are left to dry in the sun before frying in olive oil
Cooked chickpeas (I used a glass jar from a good quality brand)
Swordfish steaks – about 3cm thick and diced into thick cubes
Garlic and olive oil
Dried oregano
Grated pecorino cheese
Pistachio – granulated and preferably from Bronte in Sicily
Fresh mint leaves

(1)The menu had included mussels and prawns.  Once I had steamed open the mussels, I reserved their liquor.  I shelled the prawns and made a bisque with them.  So I used the (a)mussel liquor together with the (b)prawn bisque and some (c)lemon juice to impart a nice fishy taste to the couscous.   If you don’t have mussels and prawn bisque to hand, or can’t be bothered to make one, then invent something appropriate to season the cooking liquid.  For the rest, it is all very straightforward.

(2) Add the fried courgette ‘coins’ and the chickpeas to the couscous. Peas might be another good alternative.

(3) Cook the swordfish. Some olive oil and oregano in the frying pan together with however much garlic you like.  When it turns golden, add the cubes of swordfish and cook over a hight heat until done.  Add the pecorino and, last, the pistachio granola.

Add sprigs of mint for freshness to the final dish.  (I also added some tomato for colour).

Everyone raved about it.  Even my daughter, who normally runs a mile from couscous (her other pet hates are potato gnocchi and polenta), was so entrance by the dish and its vaguely Sicilian ingredients,  had a taste and pronounced it lovely.  The unexpected  ‘disappointing’ note in the event was that the only person not to like the couscous was … guess who? … that’s right, my father in law!  Somewhat ironic but never mind.  Thank goodness there were lots of other plates he could and did enjoy.  Here is the rest of the menu.

Tuna mousse -served with toast (the tuna was the kind packed in olive oil, not fresh)
Cod mousse (brandade as it is known) – ditto, served with toast.
Prawn salad served with strawberries (from northern Italy) and fresh pineapple
Mussels gratin (the stuffing included stale bread, garlic, tomato pure, parsley and pecorino
Cuttle fish and potato salad

Pasta course: Chitarrine alle vongole, i.e. an egg-pasta noodle called “little guitars” because they look like guitar strings I suppose, in a clam sauce

The main course included mussels cooked the way they do in the Marche: i.e. olive oil, onion, and rosemary.  Now THIS my father in law absolutely adored thank goodness. The other main course was all about fried fish: calamari, prawns and anchovies – all fresh  not frozen  I hasten to add.

It has to be said that after eating the pasta, people were feeling pretty full.  My husband even suggested that I not fry the calamari etc but I had to because of their very freshness. “They can always eat fried fish tomorrow,” I reassured him.  Ha ha for that.  Once on the table, one tentative calamaro ring at a time, a couple of prawns here and there and hey presto!  Seriously, not much left over!!!

It was a party after all, no?

And no, I did not make pudding.  I hardly ever do.  A beautiful cake was bought. 

All in all it was a really nice evening.  My mother-in-law Maria seemed content, she conversed in her usual gibberish but smiled often and was especially happy when our daughter walked in.  Her mental faculties may no longer recognise her as her granddaughter but the heart knows best.  Anyway, she particularly enjoyed the cuttlefish and potato salad – as I knew she would and the cake, she has a sweet tooth.

Considering we are in the throes of finding an appropriate care home for my Maria and all that that entails, we are particularly grateful for a few hours of serenity.  The sub-heading of my blog is “good food to put you in the mood”.  Good food really does put people in a good mood and it has nothing to do with greed or merely filling one’s stomach. PS Except for the mussels cooked the Marche way, I have posted recipes for all the other recipes in both my blogs (the first one being http://www.myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com).