Lasagna Vignarola- and the Feng Shui of Italian Umami

I started writing about this recipe in my previous post – but I ended up rambling so much with the introduction that I had to turn the post into something else.  This is the lasagna I prepared for the dinner I was catering, mentioned in that post. 
And this is the time of year when artichokes, fresh peas, asparagus and broad beans (fava beans) are celebrated on the table.  Rather than prepare a ‘normal’ vignarola (please refer to https://frascaticookingthatsamore.wordpress.com/2016/04/14/vignarola-the-pilgrimage-of-posh/), I decided to make a lasagna out of it.  Without a ‘normal’ tomato red sauce and hence with the inclusion of a béchamel/white sauce.  People are very snobby about béchamel these days but I just shrug my culinary shoulders at them and stick to being an old-fogey in this regard.  That said, the vignarola lasagna definitely needed a little extra, a little je-ne-sais-quoi besides the ubiquitous grated parmigiano. 

There was a time when I was very taken by the mysteries of Feng Shui and stuck my browsing face into many a book on the subject.  I came across an article in a magazine one day that made my chuckle: it basically said that if push came to shove in a sticky home-design situation, Feng Shui nearly always relied on installing a mirror that would either deflect bad energy or create good energy (ch’i), and that one should think of mirrors as the ‘asprin’ of Feng Shui, a cure-all for many design ailments.  Transposing this concept onto the world of Italian cuisine and its basic savoury ‘grammar’, I came to the conclusion that the ‘mirrors’, or the asprin if you prefer, that are a life-saving gustatory solution to any bland dish, that will infuse a pleasing umami to it, are the following:

-pancetta
-guanciale
-sausage
-anchovy.

Parmigiano Reggiano being a glutamate, it too produces an umami taste.  Tomato paste is also umami-rich which accounts for its florid use in so many Italian recipes.  Vegetarians would have access to only the anchovy and vegans to none of the above and just have to stick to salt (and what would we do without salt) and tomato paste.  (Please note that I am referring to an Italian food grammar and that of course the world of umami includes soy sauce, seaweed and miso etc that are vegan friendly.) 

I hope this is helpful?

Anyway, I decided to use sausage.

INGREDIENTS

Béchamel: please refer to https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2011/03/17/the-queen-of-sauces/

For the Vignarola Lasagna: good-quality shop bought lasagna sheets (less than 500g are need in total for this dish), fresh peas, asparagus, artichokes, olive oil, salt and pepper, lemon zest, grated parmigiano, sausage meat, wine, fresh mint leaves and fresh rosemary needles

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Make the béchamel and set aside – you can even make it the day before and store it in the fridge.

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Okay, so this photo is not quite representative of how I proceeded. What I did was, trim and slice the artichokes and cook them in a pan with plenty of olive oil until done. In another saucepan, with very little olive oil, I cooked the sausage meat. I then added the cooked artichoke slices to the sausage meat and poured a little wine, finishing off the cooking over a high heat. Again, set aside.

I then simmered the fresh peas in salted water and removed them and placed them into a bowl with icy cold water. I trimmed and cut up asparagus and then simmered it in the same cooking water and, again, drained the cooked asparagus into a bowl of icy water. I did, however, reserve the cooking water because I knew I would need it to loosen up the béchamel I had prepared. Béchamel tends to almost solidify when you let it sit around and it needs to be reheated in order to loosen up. I could have added more milk but instead I chose the pea and asparagus cooking water, it made more sense that way.

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I had my mint and rosemary needles at the ready.

TIME TO LAYER AND ASSEMBLE

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The first thing to do is pour some béchamel on the bottom of the pyrex or ceramic lasagna dish (and yes, I confess, I have also taken recourse to disposable aluminium lasagna containers). Then add three sheets of the ready-made shop bought lasagna. You could always make your own, but I just did not have the time (nor, ahem, the inclination).
Layer the sausage and the vegetables, sprinkle a little salt and pepper.

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If you look closely, you might spot some yellow ‘bits’ – that’s the grated lemon zest. And if you have a beady eye, you might also spot some torn mint leaves. Be generous with how much parmigiano you shower.

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Use a ladle to pour more béchamel and cover with another three sheets of lasagna. And so on, and so forth until you reach the rim of your lasagna container.

The last layer? That should be mostly made up of just the lasagna sheets and a dollop of béchamel, rounded off with hillocks of butter. Pop the lasagna into a pre-heated oven at 180°C and cook for about 40/45 minutes.

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The top layer should be crisp and inviting.

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You can see where the butter melted in the lasagna troughs.  Ah …. butter … a lasagna’s best friend.

And by the way, I made a classic ragù lasagna a few weeks ago, as a wee post-partum gift for the parents of my neighbour’s daughter-in-law who had flown over from Colombia for the happy occasion.

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And here were the aluminium containers I mentioned.

Very useful for transport purposes and no washing up.

Whether your lasagna be tomato based or milky white, it’s always going to be a crowd pleaser.  Another boon is that a lasagna can be prepared wholly in advance and stored in the freezer until needed.  What could be better for entertaining purposes?

Cooking at the Casale Sonnino

This is not one of my typical posts.  It was been prompted by today’s date, i.e. 25th April.  It is a national holiday here in Italy, called Festa della Liberazione.  “Not only does Liberation Day recognise the end to the Nazi occupation in the Second World War, it also remembers the end of the Italian Civil War. Since 1946, a national holiday has been held – the specific date of 25th April was chosen as it was the day when the National Liberation Committee of Upper Italy announced that the  CLNAI had taken control. On this day, memorials are held in honour of those who gave their lives, and all across Italy events like these will be held complete with specially organised concerts and festivals to mark the occasion.” (quote from Italy Magazine, April 2017 edition).

My thoughts are with the people of Ukraine and all the people who are suffering unnecessarily at the hands of cruel regimes, tyrants and unethical business dealings.  My thoughts are with people in exile, too, and of the houses they inhabit.

I hope you enjoy reading it.

……..

Houses and memories.
One of the nuns at the boarding school I went to in England wrote a book about the school called “The Story of a House”, the ‘house’, Farnborough Hill, having at one point been the residence of the exiled Empress of France, Empress Eugénie, widow of Napoleon III.

 

Fast-forward many decades later, and my children attended a tiny sized school in comparison set in the countryside, nestling in the Alban Hills south-east of Rome. The school, Castelli International, was founded in 1977 by a remarkable woman of Russian/Jugoslav/American descent, Marianne Palladino, her first pupils amounting to the grand number of fifteen.  It had formerly been the country house of her in-laws and named after her mother-in-law, Franca, who had died giving birth to her only child, Marianne’s future husband, Gianni.  And she and Gianni and one of her daughters and her family still live there.  It’s their home.

My meeting “Mrs P”, as she was always known, my experience at her Castelli International School throughout the eleven years both my children attended it, and the deep ties of friendship I forged there are the stuff of unwavering gratitude. Most of the ‘best friends’ I have made later in life I met there; they are scattered about in North America, Canada, Denmark, Britain, Hong Kong, New Zealand, with ties to Ireland, South Africa and Australia too when it comes to nationalities. I had every intention of writing a book about ‘her’ school, and the house a few years ago.  But you know what it’s like: as the writer Charles Simmons is supposed to have said, “ good intentions are very mortal and perishable things.  Like very mellow and choice fruit, they are difficult to keep”.

In many respects, I could say that my cooking ‘career’ (ha ha) began at Castelli Internationl. We parents (well, some parents) regularly volunteered to organise events involving not just the children but the adults too, and those of us who liked to cook were the caterers for evenings such as Sports Day or Music under the Stars.  It involved a lot of organising and list-making, and coming up with plan B and loading and unloading loads of loads of food and drink.  There was no kitchen as such to cook in, we had to set up camp as it were.  This was my logistics bootcamp where catering was concerned.

And then there is a third house that to me smacks of memories and nostalgia, and about which a book should  indeed be written –  and that is the Casale Sonnino, a country house at the foot of Monte Porzio, not far from Frascati.  The surnames “Sonnino” and “Treves” belong to notable Italian Jewish families and there are two piazzas named after them that I know of: Piazza Sidney Sonnino in Rome and Largo Claudio Treves in Milan. 

Photo Gallery

The Casale Sonnino is built over the remains of an ancient Roman Villa, with a vast congeries of vaulted caves that was most likely used for wine and olive oil storage.  Once past the gates, the drive to the house slows down one’s biorhythm; once inside the house, it is like stepping into a time warp.  It is hard to describe the atmosphere of ‘yesteryear’ that envelops the visitor, or the sensation of well being for no definite reason one can trace.  The environment prompts conversation and bonding; I am sure there is a television somewhere in the house but I couldn’t tell you where.  The overall feeling is that nothing bad or wrong could happen here. And yet something very wrong and bad did tragically ‘happen’ to the Jewish population of Europe.  Some of the Sonnino family made a lucky escape to Switzerland in 1939, and from there to the United States. Some of the Treves family also found its way to the United States.  And it was there that a Treves man married a Sonnino woman and had a family of three. 

George, one of their sons, is at the helm of the Casale today and has been since 2004, more or less.  Claire, his sister in New York City, visits regularly and also takes part in the running of the estate.  Their olive oil won a gold-medal award.  Their grapes are sold to local wine- producers.  But for all its charm and allure, a Casale has a steep upkeep and requires constant maintenance with hefty running costs.  And this is one of the reasons the family rent out their Casale to house guests, or as a small wedding venue, or even for film-making purposes.  I am sometimes asked to do a cooking class for their guests or cater a dinner.

An architect once told me that a house is our ‘third skin’ – clothes being our second skin.  My own father, the Swedish one, the one I never knew because he died when I was less than a year old, was an architect of some renown, having collaborated even with the likes of Gio Ponti.  I must have taken after him when it comes to a fascination about houses and decor.  I think some houses have ‘soul’.  Farnborough Hill, the Castelli International School and the Casale Sonnino all three, definitely have soul.  And perhaps one of the fibres to their soul has something to do with people in exile.  Or people who have made their home far away from their original home, or who pine for a home that no longer exists. Often, very often, these people speak more than one language.  And when you speak more than one language, you see the world differently, you realise that black-and-white is an illusion.

The best thing I can say about cooking at the Casale is that I feel ‘at home’ there. 1

The kitchen is not huge but it is well equipped and cosy and some of the house guests are drawn to popping in and watching me at work and, very often, volunteering to help me – even with the washing up! People who feel entitled or snobby would never be drawn to staying at the Casale in the first place, you see. The only drawback about this laid-back atmosphere and friendly chit chat is that it can be a little distracting, shall we say?, for me … getting a dinner on the table requires concentration and I know some people who can be quite snarky as they prepare the meal.  Me? I am a born chatterer so I end up engaging in the conversation – even though I stop short of drinking even one glass of wine.  I leave that for later, when the meal is reaching its end.  The key to getting it all done smoothly is writing everything down, even before I get to the Casale: setting up the kitchen, starting the prepping, putting utensils and foods where I can find them easily.  I would be lost without my notes.  And the other important, if not the most important, contributing factor is coming up with a menu that a) I know I can deliver, b) is in keeping with the season and c) that I can start preparing as much as possible even the day before.

Last Thursday I was asked to cater a dinner for a group of seven – three couples and a brother of one of the couples – who hailed from Oregon and California.  George had also been invited, of course, and an Italian couple, friends of George’s, ended up being invited too – it all came about very ‘organically’ as they say nowadays.  There was nothing serendipitous about my menu, however, there was a method to my cooking madness.  Take a look:

 

APPETIZERS
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Pizza Bianca with burrata, Sicilian tomatoes and basil topping

Fried appetizers: zucchini blossoms stuffed with mozzarella, and artichoke chunks, fried in batter 

PASTA COURSE:

Lasagna alla vignarola – a lasagna containing the Spring vegetables that make up the ‘vignarola’ recipe: fresh peas, asparagus and artichokes, wrapped in a white sauce with parmigiano

Linguine alle vongole – linguine in a clam sauce

MAIN COURSE

Saltimbocca alla romana – veal culets with prosciutto and fresh sage leaves, marsala

VEGETABLE SIDE DISHES

Caponata di melanzane: eggplant in a sweet and sour sauce
Zucchine alla scapece: fried zucchini rounds seasoned with olive oil, vinegar, garlic and mint
Puntarelle salad – seasoned with olive oil, garlic, vinegar and anchovy

DESSERT

Cassola – a ricotta based dish typical of Roman Jewish cuisine
George had a stash of excellent wine-based gelato in his freezer, which he added to finish off the dinner.

What I aim for with my choice of dinners is to give the guests an idea of what Italian home cooking is like, to provide dishes that they would  not necessarily find in a restaurant.  Italians, as we know, are somewhat … ahem, errr … prescriptive about the ‘grammar’ of any given meal.  And I doubt that any Italian worth his or her gastronomic salt would include a pasta course made up of a meat-based lasagna followed by a seafood one.  I am such a rebel.  Also, I like to provide a lot of variety – because there is no telling what people will or will not like (I do always enquire about food restrictions naturally).

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5Anyway – the whole evening was fun for all concerned, and the food heartily eaten, which always makes me happy.  They were the nicest bunch of people one could have wished for, interesting to talk to, cheerful and appreciative of every little gesture.

Good food to put  you in the mood, is my motto.  Good food is magic.  But there is no magic without good people of course.

Every year on today’s date, April 25th, Italy celebrates its liberation from Nazi-fascist tyranny.  I, like I am sure most normal people in the whole world, are hoping that Ukraine (and not just Ukraine, sadly, the world is still full of nasty war-mongering idiots) will soon be able to celebrate its peace and rebuild its country.

https://www.farnborough-hill.org/

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Putting some Mussels into Gnocchi

For those who are brave enough to want to make their own gnocchi, here is cowardly recipe with which to season them.  There is an element of ‘fiddly’ but it’s really not at all difficult to make.

This recipe brings a smile to my face together with a twinge of nostalgia.  And that is because seafood gnocchi smacks so much of the foods trending in Rome during the 1990s; gnocchi with vongole (clams) and rocket leaves was an absolute favourite for instance.  I first tasted it at a trattoria run by my cousin Teresa’s husband, the now retired Chef Mimmo, and my cousin Riccardo who served at the tables.  The restaurant was called “Mezzi Parenti” and located on a corner just the other side of Testaccio bridge.  The restaurant is long gone now but I still enjoy the food Mimmo prepares and always revel in the stories my raconteur cousin Riccardo regales us with. 
Story-telling and dining make for beautiful experiences.

For this recipe you will need fresh gnocchi. grated pecorino, steamed mussels, olive oil, garlic, small tomatoes .

GNOCCHI:

Once you’ve made the gnocchi,
(1)cook them in salted boiling water for the briefest of time, the time it takes for them to rise to the surface – taste one just to make sure. 
(2)Then drown them in very cold water so that they cool down
(3) and drain them.
(4) Store in a container in the fridge until needed (If you like, you could dribble a tiny amount of olive oil before doing so)
or
(5) Finish cooking them in their sauce and serve straight away.

The great thing about this gnocchi tip  (i.e. pre-cooking them) is that you can prepare them the day before or whip them out of the fridge even two days later, just before use.  Well, actually, I would remove them fromt the fridge about an hour before you cook them again in their sauce.  Room-temperature foods take less time to heat up or cook, it’s just common sense.

So.  (1) Gnocchi: made from scratch, cooked, drained and stored in the fridge.  (2) Mussels: they need to be cleaned and steamed open, their liquor strained and set aside.  Unlike the gnocchi, however, the mussels are best cooked on the day you are going to eat them.

Then proceed as follows.

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Start by doing the thing you hate doing most – me? Grating cheese.  I always try and get someone else to carry out this cumbersome choore if I can get away with it.  So, yes, what you see above is grated pecorino.  The more finely grated, the better.

Then, in an accommodating saucepan, sauté some garlic in olive oil until it turns golden, together with some chopped parsley.
Now add some tomatoes cut in half. 
Add half a glass of wine, why not? Cook for a further five minutes or so, less even, depending on the tomatoes and their ripeness. 
Cook, in other words, until you have reached some kind of ‘thickness’ to the sauce.  One that looks appealing to you. 
At this point you add the previously cooked gnocchi and the mussels and their liqour – and finish the dish over a high heat, moving the saucepan around to  make sure the gnocchi don’t stick together.

 

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Yes, that is steam arising from the saucepan and yes, that is my right foot in the right-hand corner. It’s hard to take photos and cook at the same time. I sprinkled a little (just a touch, one can always add more later) of the grated pecorino. I expect, though I can’t remember now, that I also added a glug of olive oil towards the end.

Time to plate up.

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And those rocket leaves are not just for garnishing you know – they really do lend a dash of “woooo” to this dish.

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A final dribble of olive oil and voilà – a 1990s Roman dish for you to drool over!

PS When I say olive oil, unless otherwise specified, I always mean extra virgin olive oil.

Mussels with Almond and Tomato Sauce

Sometimes, when we try a new recipe, we like it so much that we repeat it until we know it off by heart. Other times, for some obscure reason, we forget about the recipe until many  moons later which in turn requires that we go back in search of the written recipe.  That is the case with today’s dish.  I’m off soon to buy the ingredients and  make some for dinner tonight.

Here is the link: https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2011/12/09/mussels-are-even-mightier-with-the-addition-of-almonds/

Mussels are even mightier with the addition of Almonds

This is not my recipe … I drew inspiration for it from an Italian TV programme featuring a husband-and-wife pair (Santo and Addolorata) cooking together in their farmhouse ‘Masseria Sciarra’ in Sicily.  It is a seafood dish of mussels with the very unusual addition of almonds!  Unusual for us of course, whereas it would appear that this is most typical in the Province of Trapani and on the island of Favignana.

PART I

The first step involves cleaning the mussels — and you can refer to my post of January 5th for this https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2011/01/05/mighty-is-the-mussel/.

Here are the spruced up mussels.

PART II

Then you will require the following ingredients: garlic, cherry tomatoes, fresh parsley and basil, lemon zest, almonds, half a glass or more of white wine.   You will also need slices of crusty bread to toast.

It has been so unseasonably warm in Italy this year that the basil you see in this photo is taken from my balcony … in December!
 
 Here are the almonds … warm them up a little in a pan.
 
Keep an eye on them … otherwise they will burn instead of toast.  I saved mine in the nick of time!  Allow to cool.
 
At the back of this photo is a strange-looking toaster that nevertheless makes great toast.  I toasted 6 slices of bread.  At the front, we have the almonds that need a bit of bashing about.
 
 
Fold the almonds in a clean dish cloth … and use a rolling pin or other heavy object and bash away to your heart’s content.  We don’t want to pulverise the almonds, however … just break them up a bit.
 
Here they are, ready to be sprinkled over the mussels at the very end, just before the dish is served at the table.
 
 
 
Chop the tomatoes in half or quarter them … whatever you prefer, it doesn’t matter too much.
 
 
Chop a handful of parsley and set aside.
 
 
 
 
PART III – COOKING THE MUSSELS
 
 
In a large stock pot or saucepan … bash up some garlic, chop some parsley and basil, and add a large slice of lemon zest cut in two … drizzle plenty of olive oil and …. sauté the garlic for a few minutes.
 
Add the cleaned mussels to the pot and add the wine at the same time.
 
Put a lid on the pot and let it stew the mussels until they all open …. about 5 minutes.  You can take the lid off and check … if one or two mussels are still shut tight, put the lid back on and stew a little longer.
 
Here they are, these lovelies, all nicely opened.  It’s now time to filter their liquid.
 
Pass the liquid through a sieve.  If you have cleaned your mussels properly, there shouldn’t be too much, if any, yukky stuff to remove.
 
The sieve also catches the garlic and lemon zest and all the rest too …
 
Now totally edible … but … just to make the eating that little bit easier, it’s a good idea to render the mussels on the half shell … i.e. remove one half of their shell.
 
These are the half shells that get thrown away.  Now put the mussels, together with every drop of their precious liquid,  into another large frying pan.  Keep them ready and waiting while you get on with the last few steps.
 
PART IV – THE LAST STAGES: COOKING AND ASSEMBLING
 
More olive oil, more garlic in another frying pan … sauté until the garlic is almost brown.
 
Add the chopped tomatoes to the frying pan … and cook for about 5 minutes.  Meanwhile:
 
Warm up the mussels in another pan … do NOT overcook … just warm the pan until the mussels are hot again.
 
Now add the sautéd tomatoes and the oil they were cooked in to the mussels and, after mixing well, turn off the heat.  Sprinkle a modicum of salt and freshly milled pepper.  If you like spice, add some chilli.
 
Add the chopped parsley and the almonds last.  Get ready to transfer these lovelies, piping hot, to a serving platter.  Place the toasted bread around the platter and … serve!
 
 
 
DINNER IS SERVED!
 
The almonds tasted lovely and added, in a very discreet way, a little crunch.
 
 
 
The toasted bread did its duty and mopped up the sauce and the juices most diligently …
 
Truly fabulous.  I hope my instructions don’t give the impression of this  being a complicated dish to make.  It requires some work, yes, but is not at all difficult.  And is it worth the effort …?  What do you think!!!

Artichoke and Squid Salad

Artichokes are coming into their seasonal own right now.  Here is another way of eating them.

The artichoke must be peeled and then sliced thinly and put in a bowl containing very cold water and a squeeze of lemon.  (Some purists prefer not to add the lemon juice believing it alters the taste somewhat. The point of drowning the artichoke in water, basically, is to stop it from oxidising and turning a dark unpleasant colour.)

While prepping the artichoke, fill a pot with water and turn on the heat to boiling point.

Fill a bowl (I used a heatproof glass oven dish) with cold water and add lots of ice.

Cut the squid into bite-size squares and score the surface in a zig-zag manner with a sharp knife, to create a lattice pattern.

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Here is the squid … all cut up and latticed …

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Adding ice cubes (actually these ices are more stick-shaped than cubes)  to cold water on the right, pot boiling water on the left.

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When the water comes to the boil, switch off the heat.  Immediately afterwards, slide the squid into the pot.  And count from 1 to 60.

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After 1 minute (more or less) has passed, use a slotted spoon or whatever to remove the squid from the hot water and transfer it to the ice-cold water.

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Leave the squid to soak until it is cool.  Look how pretty it looks!  Then drain and set aside.

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Transfer the cooked and cooled squid into a bowl.  Sprinkle a little salt.

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Add the thinly cut artichokes, drizzle some olive oil, and squeeze a little lemon.

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Sprinkle a little more salt … maybe some white pepper …. and mix.

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Tasty, fresh, pretty to look at, incredibly healthy for all sorts of reasons … people watching their diets will love you for it.  As will those who don’t care one way or another.

Cottage Pie à l’italienne – Leftovers of meat and spuds

There is no such thing as cottage pie à l’italienne, I made up the title.  What does exist in Italian cuisine, in fact I suppose within all cuisines the world over, is the sin of wasting or throwing away perfectly edible food – not to mention the joy of making do with what food you’ve got handy or in season.  The latter does not apply so much any more, not now that supermarkets provide foods all year round, whether they be in season or not.  The Covid pandemic has seen a hike in the price of food as well as a drop in people’s income, so the concept of thrift at the table has gained even more currency. 

Most people know that cottage pie probably came about as a result of people wanting to find a good way to eat up the leftovers of the Sunday roast.   Using minced meat instead of the leftover, and more expensive,beef was a great idea too. 

Anyway … what I had was the remains of a dish called “straccetti”, meaning little rags, which I had served with rocket leaves and and olive oil and lemon juice.  I also had some very nice mashed potatoes.  Straccetti are very thin slices of beef pan-cooked with a little olive oil for the briefest of time; the very idea of reheating them made me grimace.  They would have gone rock hard or rubbery.  Hence my brilliant Italianate interpretation of the classic British cottage pie.

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What you see here is a very messy top of a cooker.  On the right, you can see a few remains of the straccetti.  The rest have gone into the pie pot in the middle of the cooker. 

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What I did was I place a layer of mashed potatoes on the bottom, then added the straccetti and a lot of their juice.  Topped it off with a final layer of mashed potatoes.  In it went into a hot oven (200°C) for I seem to remember about half an hour.

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And very nice it turned out to be, too! The meat tasted even better according to my husband. I can confirm that it was succulent.

So let’s hear it for leftovers! And then we can pat ourselves on our back for being true to the waste-not-want-not motto.

PS I was ahming and erring about whether I should write this post, not because I wasn’t sure of the recipe, but because of the mess in the kitchen. I changed my mind because people have to know that cooking does indeed create a mess – and cleaning up the mess as you go along is part of cooking.

PS Here is another post I wrote about straccetti. https://frascaticookingthatsamore.wordpress.com/2018/08/22/an-apple-a-day-makes-our-straccetti-very-okay/

Lorry Drivers and a French Fish Stew

Yesterday I mentioned food blogger Frank Fariello.

Today I would like to mention Stefan and his gourmet blog.  I actually met Stefan and his husband Kees about 10 years ago, when they were travelling through Italy and what a delight it was to meet them in person.  Undeniable though it is, all this stuff about Facebook being an evil force in our lives and promoting polarization and worse prompts me to counter the problem by pointing out that:  it is also very much a good force, for getting like-minded people to share their views and concerns and make friends they would otherwise not have been able to meet. End of Pollyanna quote for today.

The reason I bring up Stefan – apart from his covetable cooking skills and gastronomic élan – is that one of his posts in January really hit the spot with me.  Time and time again, these past few years, even before Covid, I regularly came to a somewhat bemusing conclusion that despite my love of cooking (which I nearly always do on a daily basis, from scratch) and despite my large collection of cookery books, not to mention the availability of internet recipes, when it comes down to it, I end up cooking the same meals over and over again; at the  most, I’ll give the same recipes a bit of a twist.  There are some very good reasons for this, habit being a well-intentioned champion of efficiency and time-saving application.  But I reckon there is more to the repeatability of a dish, a desire for serenity perhaps,  a way to self-soothe, a way to express continuity and tradition.

Stefan comes up with 39 home-cooked meals and here is the link to guide and inspire you: https://stefangourmet.com/2022/01/02/what-we-eat-on-a-daily-basis/.

Interestingly, I was thinking myself of writing down the main meals of our family and yes, the meals are mostly Italian, but not necessarily Italian.  Individual preferences for any given cuisine aside, I find that Italian food takes hardly any time to prepare and cook – it’s a life saver in terms of stress related to cooking.  Anyway, today, the recipe is French.  A recipe I’d not heard of before and I doubt many of you have.  It’s quite a feat to find anything about it on the internet.  I came across it via an Italian TV programme.

The programme is called “Camionisti in Trattoria”.  It’s had quite a few series and it featured chef Rubio (his real name is Gabriele Rubini).  Born in 1983, he is not much older than my daughter and guess where he comes from? Yes, Frascati!  Frascati is the centre of the world didn’t you know.  I used to fancy his dad when, at around the age of 15, I would bump into him at the swimming pool of friends we had in common.  He was quite the looker.  His son looks nothing like his dad but he too, I am told, is very attractive to the younger generation – he is full of tattoos and is a bit on the beefy side.

He was a former rugby player and ended up in New Zealand at one point.  I think that that’s where he developed a deeper interest in food and upon his return to Italy attended a top-notch culinary school near Parma.  He has appalling table manners which I just can’t stand, sorry.  But it’s not difficult to see that it’s all part of the persona he is portraying on his TV programmes: down to earth, the opposite of Michelin and mincing ways, ‘real’ food, street food, traditional food, not quite Bourdain but there are some similarities.  Anyway, the TV programme in question follows him as he hops on to the huge lorries or trucks or long vehicles or whatever they are called and chats with the driver, asking him why he chose this profession, what kind of life does he lead, and, most important, where does he like to eat on his road trips?

Here is a link to the intro of Caminositi in Trattoria, it will give you an idea of his sense of humour and body language: https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=1605670286149571 .

Each episode concentrates on one particular region of Italy, so it’s all about no-fuss local food, served in alkaseltzer-requiring portions, in trattorie that are the opposite of fancy and a trucker’s delight.  The prices are always incredibly affordable.  Italy has changed so much in the last twenty years as regards its eating habits and this TV programme is a kind of reminder of how people used to enjoy eating in the recent past: good food, yes, but plenty – oh boy – plenty of it!

Here is the another link where Chef Rubio is shown dancing with the driver near his lorry outisde the trattoria: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tCUZafin9Hw .

In one of the series, chef Rubio travels through southern France and this is the episode that inspired me to get out of my cooking rut and try something new.  It’s a fish and potato stew.  It does take a bit of time but it’s not ‘fiddly’ and is delicious.  It was served as a ‘catigot’.   There isn’t all that much on the internet about this catigot but from what I’ve read it’s most likely to hail from the Camargues and probably started out only with eel.  It must be, also, what the French call a ‘matelote’, i.e. fish bits cooked with red wine and onions.

https://www.supertoinette.com/glossaire-cuisine/946/culinaire/catigot.html:

Un catigot (ou catigau) est une matelote de poissons de rivière, originaire de Condrieu, dans le Lyonnais, qui a subi de nombreuses variations. Le catigot se prépare avec des anguilles et des carpes (ou les deux), soit grillées en tronçons avec de l’oignon et du lard, puis mijotées avec un coulis de tomates, soit bouillies à feu vif avec des rondelles de pommes de terre, du blanc de poireau, des tomates, de l‘ail et du laurier. Dans la région d’Arles, on y ajoute du piment.

Anyway, this is my rendition, based on what I can remember from the TV programme.  No eels in this one.

INGREDIENTS

What you will need is loads of butter, more butter than you are accustomed to using normally.  Then some flour, a little bit of olive oil, fish fillets of course as well as mussels and prawns or shrimp.  Cognac and wine. Crème fraiche, only I didn’t have any so substituted with ordinary cream.  Oh, and some garlic. Always garlic. And parsely, parsely always so kind hearted.  And not forgetting salt and pepper.  I did not give indications for seasoning this dish because we like our food well salted in this family and I didn’t want to frighten anyone.  Just do as you like and feel is best for your palate.

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Begin by chopping up the potatoes into bite size pieces and cook them in butter – loads of butter, and only butter.  Oh yes.  We are in Julia Child domain. It might take 15 minutes to get these spuds cooked to perfection over a low heat.

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Deal with the mussels.  They have to de-bearded and scrubbed and cleaned. You can do this while the potatoes are cooking.

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Have your prawns on stand-by.

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Here are the fish fillets (two salmon, two cod).  Have some flour handy with which to dust them before cooking.

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Here is the cream.

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Here is the cognac – appropriately placed in a wee ceramic jar depicting a rooster, this being a gallic recipe and all.

Now that we have got the prepping under control, we can get on with what I define as pre-cooking (yes, yes, I know the potatoes were cooking but you know what I mean ….).

PRE-COOKING

Unfortunately, I forgot to take a photo of some garlic being pan fried, together with butter (!) and a wee drizzle of olive oil.  When it’s cooled down, add it to the cream.

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And yes  – I slightly overcooked the garlic.  Tough.

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Here are the beautiful king prawns being cooked in butter.

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It doesn’t take long so do be careful not to overcook.

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Add the cognac and set fire to it …. and then set aside.

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Dust the fillets with flour.

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Cook in plenty of butter.  Remove and set aside.

Just to recap: we have “pre-cooked” the potatoes, the garlic, the fillets of fish and the king prawns.

THE FINAL PREPARATORY STEP

Now, I can’t be sure but I have a feeling that a catigot might also be the name for a metal dish.  I opted for a terracotta one, instead, that likes to be cooked in an oven and looks rustically good when brought to the table.

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All right, what have we here?  Well: potatoes on the bottom, and the fish fillets perhced on top.  Roughly chopped parsley.

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Pour in the cream and garlic.  Then accommodate a crown of the cooked and cognac-ed king prawns.

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And to finish off, we place some nice mussels in their shells on the very top.  As many as you like.

We were having mussels as a first course that evening, so I went easy on the mussels for the catigot.

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Mussels cooked and eaten this way require a lot of bread to mop up the sauce, yum yum.

On with our catigot …

COOKING (as opposed to pre-cooking)

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I didn’t have a lid for my terracotta pot so got hold of some aluminium, it does the job just as well or even better.  Then the catigot went into a pre-heated oven (180°C) for about 40 minutes or so.  And was served as our main course.

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Happily satiated by the catigot, father and son went on to play a post-prandial game of cards.

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You can tell  by their cheery faces that the catigot had hit the spot.  My father-in-law turned 92 last September.  He always wins at cards.  He won that evening too …

PS Re Chef Rubio … His accent and TV person might be brash and brazenly Roman (he downplays the fact that he did the classics liceo at secondary school) but he is one of the most well travelled Italian cooks and I like his gastronomic outlook. Here is a link to his participation in Guatemala for an IFAD campaign regarding climate change issues.  He’s a good lad …

Veal Brisket the Roman Way

I like the way Frank Fariello writes about Italian food – the precision with which he describes the recipe, the background and detail that act like a frame and, especially to my mind, the sheer gusto that sparkles through his renditions are precious ingredients in the make-up of a good food blogger. He recently posted about a recipe he calls “petto di vitella alla fornara” (see link at the bottom) and reminded me that I too, on my previous blog, had written about it. Hmmm. I might make it for dinner tomorrow.

Baker’s Brisket – Punta di Vitello alla Fornara

This recipe made me realise, and not for the first time, how lucky we are nowadays to enjoy the fruits of kitchen technology: running water out of a tap, a cooker, a fridge, electrical gadgets and, not to be undermined, the dishwasher.  The origins of this recipe go far far back when people didn’t have an oven at home and would thus have to rely on the village baker’s oven to do some of their roasting or even, if they had access to one, a kiln for pottery or tile-making.  The famous stew from Impruneta in Tuscany called ‘peposo’ is just one example of kilns being useful for cooking!

As cuts of meat go, this veal is a sort of leftover from the chest of the animal (the dictionary says that ‘punta di petto’ translates as brisket) and fraught through with bits of bone and cartilage and thus had less commercial value.  The butchers were not stupid, however, and would reserve this dainty morsel for their own delectation and evidently made use of the local baker (fornaio) to do the roasting for them.  End of pseudo-history lesson.

In the baking dish … some garlic and a few peppercorns.

The strips of this veal brisket were too long to fit in the baking dish so I cut some of them up with a pair of scissors.

I then showered the veal with rosemary, olive oil and salt and pepper.

A close-up …

I massaged the oil all over and the dish was ready to cook.

In a pre-heated oven at 200°C for about 35 minutes (I played the cooking time by ear).

Just out of the oven and smelling delicious!

Simple and satisfying.  A lot of taste with no fuss.

And here is the link to Frank’s post: https://memoriediangelina.com/2022/02/12/petto-di-vitella-alla-fornara/

Orange and Salad turn the Meal into a Ballad

Happy New Year everyone!

I am reposting something I wrote almost 10 years ago to the day – it’s about a Winter salad, one using a special kind of radicchio and adding slices of oranges to make it zing. Now that most (or all?) of the holidays are over, some are deciding to give up booze for the month, others meat and do Vegan-January, others to eschew overly rich meals or take up more exercise. Opting for this delicious and healthy salad will please all of the above! Salads are foods that unite rather than gastronomically divide … and we do need some ‘unification’ all over the world.

ORANGE AND RADICCHIO SALAD

Salads have a wonderfully reassuring ring to them for sad people who like to be on a perennial diet.  Salads are spoken of in hallowed terms with holier-than-thou endorsement by those who would eat healthily.  And salads are anything but a fresh ballad of nature’s leaves when served in dodgy food places, quite the opposite actually, because the food industry knows that clients must have the option of salad somewhere on the menu.

I am a salad purist, which makes me a very fussy salad eater because I do so love my salads and enjoy them especially for their gastronomic pleasure rather than for any health-promoting promise.  The healthiness is a boon and a bonus, not a draw.  Which is why you will never catch me looking lovingly upon a smoothie.

I once read or was told, I cannot remember which, that adding vinegar to a salad dressing was somehow counter-productive … in that the vinegar would ‘cook’ the salad leaves as it were whereas a ‘real’ salad ought to be crisp and fresh.  It made sense and I tried it and liked it and pruned my salad dressing, for the most part, to salt and pepper and olive oil only.  In other words, I eschewed the anointment of balsamic vinegar … which I now look upon as an insult to most green salads.  “Anche perchè” as the Italians say, i.e. “not least because” … because the balsamic vinegar in question is usually some concoction of sugar and caramel added to any ol’ vinegar and nothing like the real thing that costs far too much for most households to use on a regular basis.

In the case of this salad, however, I have had to re-instate it.  It made sense and it tasted lovely!

The name off this beautifully dappled salad is: radicchio variegato di Castelfranco and hails from the Veneto region of Italy.  It is a cross between a round-headed endive and Radicchio Rosso.  If you can’t get hold of this variety, use the ordinary radicchio that you can indeed find.

Slice a couple of oranges into rounds, leaving the white ‘pith’ on … add the salad leaves …

Drizzle some olive oil (extra virgin hand-pressed), use restraint in splashing a few ‘dots’ of good-quality balsamic vinegar, sprinkle some salt  …. and voilà! A lovely salad that makes use of food that is in season (oranges and radicchio) as well as satisfying the palate.

A Post-Thanksgiving Thought – The Classic Swedish Potato Dish

Thanksgiving is over for this year and it was my fervent wish that all my friends in the USA got to experience a much better holiday than they did last year when Covid was still out-of-control; not that we are out of the woods yet, especially in some parts of the world. We can, however, only hope for the best, be grateful that modern medicine has provided vaccinations in record time and be thankful for considerate behaviour at large (wearing of masks for instance) as well as logical hygienic precautions. These are frightening times, the world over, and yet it’s no good just concentrating on what’s not working, on what is wrong. Not to put too fine a point on it, may I remind you of ‘that’ Monty Python song – the one that entreaties us to always look on the bright side of life, in which the lyrics include the famous phrase “Life’s a piece of shit, when you look at it” ! (From the film The Life of Brian). I don’t know about you but there are days when I am simply fed up with being fed up … and that is when I often find solace in ‘feeding’, cooking for others, it takes my mind off wordly worries.

Today’s blog post is about people feeding me, instead. This was early in November when my niece Ulrika and her partner Juan from Sweden came to visit. They cooked an iconic Swedish potato dish known as Jansson’s frestelse, meaning ‘Jansson’s Temptation’ (more about the recipe later). My galley kitchen is pretty tiny and it’s a miracle that the three of us fitted in it, and the pair of them were at it like you wouldn’t believe; Juan slicing the potatoes the way you’re supposed to and Ulrika getting on with the onions and measuring and what have you. Picture me trying to keep up with them and take decent photos. My photos are not instagrammable at the best of times so you can imagine on that occasion. My thought, though, was that it would make a fantastic addition to any Thanksgiving meal. Well – it’s a bit too late for that this year, but why not try it next year?

The BBC has this to say about it: “This is a gratin-style dish that everyone in Sweden knows well. Never make the mistake of using anchovies, as many English-language recipes suggest. The Swedish word ‘ansjovis’ actually means sprats, not anchovies. Whoever originally translated it that way condemned many a poor person to a very salty dish!” https://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/janssons_frestelse_24036

In Sweden, it is a traditional Christmas dish. “Jansson’s temptation, or Janssons frestelse − a creamy potato and anchovy casserole − is said to have been named after Pelle Janzon, a food-loving Swedish opera singer of the early 1900s. In any case, the recipe was published for the first time in 1940, and this rich casserole quickly became a classic of the Swedish Christmas dinner table. But Jansson’s temptation can just as easily be eaten at any time of year.” From: https://sweden.se/culture/food/janssons-temptation

My fellow-blogger friend Ron from “Lost in a Pot”, who lives in Sweden, has this to say about a version that even contains salmon (which of course is not traditional but sounds delicious in any case):

Jansson’s frestelse or Jansson’s Temptation is Christmas comfort food. It consists of potatoes, yellow onion, Swedish ansjovies, heavy cream, salt & pepper. While living in the US, the proper Swedish anchovies (sprats) called for in this dish were impossible to find, so my substitute was anchovy paste which I would blend into the heavy cream. Not the same, but it did the trick at Christmas time when I was homesick! What caught my eye with this new recipe is that it uses cold smoked salmon, which is readily available everywhere, so I decided to give it a try. The dish, which really is a casserole, turned out great! Basic and yummy, as well as easy. However, the flavor is different from the original recipe, so if you are familiar with the original Jansson’s frestelse, so proceed with caution …https://lostinapot.com/swedish-julbord/

And now that I have given you a choice of three recipes to choose from, I can post the photos I took of our Frascati version. Very important note: Ulrika had brought the tinned sprats from Sweden. Next time I shall have to rely on top-quality Italian anchovies (not the nasty overly fearfully-salted ones that understandably put the fear of God into so many people), possibly from Sicily or from Cetara in Campania. That said, I love the umami of anchovies so I’m not too bothered (says Jo waving knowingly at Phyllis Knudsen).

Last comment: it tasted fantastic even the following day.

The photos speak for themselves, so I won’t comment much. It turned out that the cream was not quite enough so Ulrika added a little milk towards the end. We served it with the Tuscan meat dish called “peposo” (here is a link to the recipe: https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2014/02/13/going-tuscan-for-st-valentines-peposo-cannellini-and-spinach/) but Juan and Ulrika were quite firm in admonishing us from thinking of Jannson’s frestelse as an ‘accompaniment’ to a meat dish. It is a dish in its own right, not a side dish, and deserves respect.

Note that the oven dish must be buttered before adding the sliced potatoes.  And that lots and lots of butter is required in order to sweat the chopped onions.

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Phew, job done! Juan and Ulrika can finally relax and get on with the rest of the evening.

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In a hot oven for about an hour and voilà – ready to be gulped down.

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Here is the Peposo.

And, below, my own attempt at the potato recipe. What you see are leftovers. NOT quite the same as Ulrika’s and Juan’s but still eminently delicious. And besides … practice makes perfect … so I’d better be making some more soon.

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