Do you want super-soft silky-smooth and, also and especially, crispy-skinned roast chicken?
Then you might want to give it a sauna before roasting it.
Let me explain. I’ve said this before but years ago I read about a technique for cooking duck. This entails boiling it for a good 40 minutes, then draining it until it dries. And, last, popping it into a hot oven – without any oil or butter required because the bird’s reserves of fat are a surfeit of plenty. The duck is moist within, and crispy without. So, I thought to myself, why not try the same thing with a chicken. Did it work? Yes, it worked. Why bother? you might well ask – there are plenty of other ways to achieve a succulent proper roast chicken (including brining) . My answer is – try it first and then come to your own decision.
The technique is risibly easy.
(1) The chicken needs to be steamed for 20-30 minutes or until cooked without any need of pampering – just the chicken. (2) When cool enough to handle, transfer the chicken to a roasting pan. Place some lemon and rosemary in its cavity. Sprinkle salt and drizzle it with olive oil. (3) The oven has to be preheated to 200° C. Roast until cooked, which will take about one hour (this depends on the size of the chicken).
Repeating the first line of this post: Do you want super-soft silky-smooth but crispy-skinned roast chicken? To which I add: and you get some delicious gravy out of it too? Who could wish for more!
Positives: ease of preparation (no fuss), delicious results, can be steamed the day before and left in the fridge until the next day, incredible texture both of its flesh and its skin.
To bear in mind: the time factor. The chicken needs to be steamed for 30 mintues and cooked for about 1 hour. You can be doing the crossword puzzle or an ordinary puzzle or email a friend, or read a book or magazine while all this is going on. It requires hardly any supervision.
I served the chicken with plain spinach and not-at-all plain mushrooms. The steaming of the chicken delivered a kind of chicken broth. I wasn’t about to throw that away. So I used the broth to boil some potatoes. I then mashed the potatoes and hashed them into a potato cake. Not just a potato cake – a woderful potato cake according to my husband who is not usually much of a ‘potato’ guy. High praise indeed.
THE RAW CHICKEN
Here it is perched on a bamboo steaming basket nestling inside a dutch oven.
I decided to add some rosemary and sage to the pot. That’s pretty much all I have on my balcony just now. I then added enough water to reach the top of the steaming basket base, put the lid on the pot, turned the heat on and forgot about it for about 30 minutes.
THE CHICKEN AFTER THE SAUNA
The chicken has gone a very pale white and is very hot. You can’t see it in the photo, but the base of pot contained quite a bit of liquid.
I transferred the still-hot chicken to the roasting pan. Liberally sprinkled salt (no pepper – I prefer that for later, so that the pepper can give off its lovely scent when freshly milled). I also drizzled some olive oil all over the chicken. The cavity I filled with half a lemon cut in two and some fresh rosemary.
Here is a close-up.
I put the chicken in the oven and switched the heat on to 200°C. This is not normal practice. The done thing, usually, is to pre-heat the oven. But, since it was already cooked, I wasn’t too bothered.
THE ROASTED CHICKEN
It smelt divine …. Roast chicken is a happy-inducing smell.
Okay, okay, I realize that in my enthusiasm I am putting up too many photos maybe. It’s just that I am trying to show you how crisp the skin turned and how much gravy seeped through to the bottom of the oven pan.
And no photo can do justice to the whiteness of the chicken’s flesh, nor its suppleness and softness.
Plenty of gravy … good to add the spinach now.
The spinach had been blanched and roughly chopped. The spinach loved its puddle of gravy and absorbed all the lovely tastes.
SAUNA BROTH POTATO CAKE
As mentioned, here are the potatoes being boiled in the broth that had resulted from the steaming of the chicken earlier.
Once the potatoes had cooked (absorbing all the broth I might add), I mashed them. I then added some salt and rosemary and started sautéing them with some olive oil over a fairly high heat.
And voilà – we have very tasty potato pancake or cake or whatever we want to call this.
In conclusion – I would not go out of my way to steam a chicken just so as to be able to make use of its broth to cook potatoes! But, since I DID have that broth left over, there was no point wasting it, no?
There is a little hilltop town in the Marche Region of Italy called “Monterubbiano” – and it was the birthplace of my late mother-in-law Maria who moved to Rome in her late teens. Her husband, also from the Marche but resident in Rome since the age of fifteen, decided to buy a house there when he retired and it became the go-to summer holiday place for me and my husband and our two young children. The Marche can boast a fabulous cooking tradition and set of dishes, including seafood. This little town invented a dish. One that is laborious to make, and every summer some of the women organise a street-food festival highlighting it. Punters, holiday-makers and residents all queue up for this dish (and other foods) and enjoy eating outdoors and making revelry.
There is also a band playing old-fashioned and outdated songs and children like to run around and some older people like to dance. During the three or four nights that the “Tagliatelle Festival” takes place, we who resided there slap bang in the middle of the village would moan and groan (oh so entitled!) that we were forcibly prevented from parking close to home in order to allow safe space for all the trestle tables when we came back from a day at the seaside. But all in all, it was a minor nuisance. The real ‘nuisance’ – and funnily enough the word is somehow related to the word ‘noise’ – was the live bands’ frequent renditions (covers) of internationally well-known hits, generating a lot of eyebrow raising and sniggering. One of the singers who was actually pretty okay went by the name of “Claudia Forever” – but we did sometimes wish she wouldn’t keep singing ‘forever’ when the town clock rang in its 13 chimes to mark 1 a.m. Mid-August in Monterubbiano, no one gets to sleep before 1 a.m. – not unless you have ear plugs. After a nasty earthquake damaged the town clock, the one saving grace was that it could no longer boom out the 13 chimes at 1 a.m (12 to mark midnight, you see, and 1 to mark the first hour of the day).
The force behind the Tagliatelle Festival – which in Italian is rendered by the word “Sagra” – so let’s call it Sagra from now on – is that indomitable woman, Liana.
A good, great, generous, kind, witty, with-it, sharp, thoughtful lady and great friend of my mother-in-law. The 15th of August is a national holiday in Italy and it is dedicated to Mary, Jesus’s mother. Well, despite being swept off her feet by her to-do list for that day, Liana never, not once, ever forgot to swing by our place with a bunch of flowers for Maria, my mother-in-law, on her name-day. On other days, she might bring her famous cake, a ‘ciambellone’. Below are some photos of her teaching my sister-in-law outside in our courtyard.
She is a great cook and numbers (or bad weather! don’t forget we are talking about al fresco dining here, rain can ruin the whole Sagra shindig) never faze her. When my father-in-law turned 90 almost two years ago, we asked her to prepare the slap-up lunch for 60 of us – why would we even dream of going to a restaurant when we have Liana? Just to be clear, Liana does have other helpers …. Even she can’t do it all on her own! Below is a photo of Liana and her co-caterers digging into their lunch after serving everyone else. The photo, the only one I took (!), does no credit whatsoever to their sense of humour, their team spirit and all the fun they had while preppaing, cooking and serving. Shame on me for not taking a better photo.
The proceeds from the sale of the Sagra delle Tagliatelle Fritte go to sponsoring the local Sports Cooperative. About thirty years ago, disaster struck Liana’s life. Her husband went to fetch their son who was away at university one evening, and a road accident killed both of them. She has another son, a footballer. We rarely speak of this but sometimes she did comment, that the pain, the pain never goes away. And yet when you meet her she is all sunshine and smiles and asking after your life – the very opposite to those “I-me-and-myself” people who inhabit our world (I’m sure you know a few yourself). I have no words to do justice to describing her – the only word that comes to mind is the pedestrian “amazing”. So, for me you see, tagliatelle fritte are all about the incredible Liana.
Delicious though they are, these fried tagliatelle balls are incredibly filling and I don’t usually manage to eat more than maximum two! There used to be a restaurant in Monterubbiano called “Pazzi” which laid claim to the origin of the recipe – but we’ll never know. Now, if you want to enjoy a tagliatella fritta – and not just during the summer sagra – you can enjoy them at the only eatery left in the village (the population of villages in Italy sadly dwindles from year to year). The place is called “Il Coccaro” and it’s worth going there just for the view of the surrounding hills and the sea in the distance. Click on the link below and take a look. http://www.ilcoccaro.it/ .
As for Chindanai (remember? my post on chicken liver and my picky eater/gourmet inclined nephew?) he can never get enough of them. The photo was taken in 2012 – the same year Liana was interviewed by a local TV group. If you wish, you could watch the video even if you don’t understand Italian – it’ll give you an idea of the whole ‘atmosphere’. Go to 1 minute 50 to get straight to the point.
Today is “martedì grasso”, Italian for Mardi Gras which is French for the English Shrove Tuesday. A day when the pancake or crepe rules supreme. The recipe I am about to show you actually harks back to last December but seems to be appropriate enough for today’s pancake theme.
I am dedicating the first part of the recipe to my friend Victoria Bonadonna. Victoria is convinced that béchamel is something difficult to make. This is to persuade her otherwise.
What I did was put the entire list of the ingredients in the saucepan, cold milk included, ALL AT ONCE (horror, shock!), turn the heat on, and hope for the best. Yes, it did require my stirring a little, especially at the beginning when it’s important to combine the flour with the milk. But that was it. Lo and behold, a few minutes later, life presented me with a perfectly good white sauce, aka béchamel.
A twist on either version above … Remember my last post and my nephew Chindanai’s aversion to dairy? Well, who says we can’t make béchamel with another liquid – it does not have to be milk! If you are simmering vegetables, use the water they cooked in in place of the milk. It won’t be quite the “white queen of sauces” but it will do very well. Alternatively, you could go half-and-half (half milk, half vegetable broth). I suppose if you’re vegan you could use olive oil instead of butter?
So much for making béchamel. Onto my recipe for Cauliflower Cheat Cannelloni
THE PROBLEM WITH CAULIFLOWER
There is no problem whatsoever with cauliflower – if you like or love it that is. I have commented more than once on how I, Jo the great lover of vegetables, who tends to describe herself as “a vegetarian who eats a lot of meat”, well … on how I, instead, remain underwhelmed by this pretty–looking cruciferous. It’s become quite the ‘thing’, hasn’t it? over the last few years, someone should write a book about the human capital involved in its popularity, running neck to neck with that of avocado. Roasted cauliflower, cauliflower steaks, cauliflower soup (just the thought makes me gag), cauliflower couscous, cauliflower rice, cauliflower curry. The way I see it, cauliflower always needs a lot of help, it does not do well ‘solo’. I am trying, however, I really am (8 out of 10 for effort) and my quest for a delicious riff on cauliflower somehow brought me to creating this recipe. I think laziness played a big part too.
THE MAKING OF A RECIPE
I resorted, for inspiration, to my great love of the recipe involving pancakes called “crespelle alla fiorentina” – which has become quite the family favourite over the years: https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2013/03/06/florentine-crepes-crespelle-alla-fiorentina/ – but it is also quite the labour of love. Pancakes have to be made, béchamel has to be made, a tomato sauce has to be prepared, spinach has to be cooked and ricotta left to drip, and, last, plenty of parmigiano has to be grated (I hate hate hate grating cheese, despite the availability in my home of many types of cheese graters).
What I had on my hands were the following: cauliflower, sausage and mozzarella. Sausage will perk up any insipid ingredient, I knew sausage alone would save the day. The cauliflower had to be pre-cooked and I could use its cooking water to make a béchamel. But did I really want to go to the trouble of making fresh-pasta cannelloni sheets or else, alternatively, pancakes? No.
TORTILLAS TO THE RESCUE
Where am I going with this, you must be wondering. Okay. Okay. Let me try and explain. My birthday last year had a Mexican theme and I found myself with a good number of tortillas left over in my store cupboard. They had to be eaten up. Maybe I could save myself a lot of trouble and use them, the way I use pancakes to make “crespelle alla fiorentina”? Instead of making pancakes from scratch, i said to myself, why not utilise those tortillas? I still had to make a quick and simple tomato sauce, and I still had to great the parmigiano but that’s par for the course. Sigh.
My father in law really loved it! And I shall be making it again I am sure. It’s a versatile dish. Look at it this way, if you remove the sausage, it’s totally vegetarian. Remove the butter, parmigiano and sausage and it’s vegan (in which case I don’t know how you would amp up the tastes that sausage meat and cheeses confer). And on top of it tasting good and satisfying your hunger, it also gives you cause to become all superior as you hold forth to your friends, whether you be omnivore, vegetarian or vegan, on the health benefits of it all.
Cauliflower, nutmeg, butter, flour, cauliflower ‘broth’ (i.e. the water the cauliflower cooked in), olive oil, sausage, mozzarella, parmigiano, garlic, tomato sauce – and not forgetting Mexican tortillas !!!
The first thing to do is turn the oven on at 180°C. That is if you intend to prepare and cook straight away. You could always prepare this earlier in the day, and cook it later in the evening.
First things first – boil the cauliflower in salted water. Careful to drain the cooked cauliflower with a slotted spoon into a bowl – you want to keep the cooking water. Allow it to cool.
Next, make the tomato sauce. A very simple one. Sauté some garlic or onion (you choose) in olive oil, add the plum tomatoes, salt and any fresh herb of your choice. Simmer for at least 20 minutes, to develop the full, friendly, tomato-y taste. Should it be too ‘acidic’, just add a pinch of sugar or, better still, a new approach, a pinch of bicarbonate of soda. Works a treat in dealing with acidity!
Here is the cauliflower béchamel. Look up the link above on how to make the ordinary béchamel and then adapt it. In a nutshell: 1 part of flour and butter to 10 times their weight in milk/broth. So for instance: 30g butter, 30g flour and 300ml liquid. Easy, no?
Here is the mozzarella, slice it up and set aside. Also, grate a good amount of parmigiano. Set aside, ready in waiting.
This looks like a mess – granted. What I did was: sauté some garlic in olive oil, and add the sausage meat I had removed from its casing and roughly chopped. I most probably added a splash of wine at some point when the sausage meat had almost cooked, and then added the previously cooked cauliflower. I can’t work out what those green ‘bits’ are … thyme? rosemary? We’ll never know. Salt and pepper and taste, taste, taste. It’s okay for the cauliflower to get all ‘mushy’, don’t worry. Add some of the béchamel to the mix and combine well.
Time to assemble! Place the tortillas for a short while in the oven so that they become nice and soft before using them. Spoon in the stuffing, and roll the tortillas/fake cannelloni. Smear the oven pan with a layer of the béchamel and then lay each tortilla down, seam side down.
I seemed to have a lot of stuffing on my hands so I placed some on top of tortillas too – and, finally, the mozzarella.
A full coat of béchamel all over the tortillas and then the tomato sauce.
Yes – plenty of freshly grated parmigiano.
Pop the Cauliflower Cheat Cannelloni in the oven and bake for about 40 minutes? To be honest, I can’t remember. But you’ll know when they’re done.
What do you reckon? Inviting?
There was some leftovers for the day after too – another bonus. I expect one could prepare these in advance and freeze them until required.
Maybe even pitta bread might work, who knows? But I reckon the tortillas work better ….
As mentioned in my previous post, my husband will not eat liver, which is a shame because – even if I say so myself – I make a pretty good Tuscan-style chicken liver paté.
My friend Liz and I asked a proper Tuscan butcher, from the Bacci butchery in Lastra a Signa (see link at the bottom for the post on Chinanina meats) how he made his paté and I just take it from there. When I say, I ‘take’ it from there in the present tense, let’s just say the intervening six years since that consultation with the butcher have played their part in undermining my once excellent memory. What I do remember as fact is the use of onion and fresh sage leaves (which must be removed before puréing the livers). I add fresh rosemary too. “Fact” when it comes to chicken liver patés in Italy always seems include anchovies and capers. Some use butter, others do not, preferring olive oil. Cognac is used in the United Kingdom. In Italy, it is more the case of a sweet wine, a dessert wine. And that’s to detract from the overly bitter taste of the livers themselves.
So, who is Chindanai? He is my nephew, and the son of my former brother-in-law Enrico. Enrico is a self-made chef and ran two restaurants in Rome and Marino which sadly did not have a happy ending, the economy of these past few years being what it is. Dire. He is still in the restaurant/food business and hopefully success will catch up with him, he certainly deserves it. We were talking patés a few years ago and I asked how his mother made it (apparently hers is a real benchmark) and that is when anchovies and capers were reconfirmed. And then when I mentioned the dessert-wine bit, he came up with genius alternative. Not everyone has dessert wine lying about at home so …. So, use grated apple instead, to add the sweet note. Yay! Which is what I’ve been doing ever since.
Fortunately my daughter loves my chicken liver paté; I often make it for her when I know she’s coming over, in quite large batches, so that she can take some home with her and freeze it. The rest I scoff all on my lonesome self. Until one day Chindanai’s mother told me that, actually, he too was very fond of the stuff. So of course I gave her some to take to him, And he pronounced it very good, very good indeed. Chindanai, having grown up with (a) foodie Dad (hate the word ‘foodie’ but sometimes it comes in handy) and (b) not-at-all-slouch-in-the-kitchen Mum Nadia, is a bit of a pain the the backside when it comes to meal preferences. In that there are certain ingredients he shuns (dairy for instance, and that’s maybe on account of his being of Thai origin); then there are perfectly tasty ‘normal’ dishes that he finds utterly unconvincing and beneath his discenrning palate; last, when it comes to dishes that he does indeed like, Glory Halleluyah, well, they have to be prepred ‘just so’. A young gourmet in the making (he will be twent-four later this year). You will therefore appreciate how chuffed I was to have his benediction in the paté department.
My son groans every time I tell him a dish is ‘easy’ to prepare. Well, this IS easy to prepare. And very cheap too. Cheap and most cheerful.
Chicken livers, olive oil, fresh sage, fresh rosemary, 1 apple , salt-dried capers, anchovies packed in oil, butter. Optional: cognac or a dessert wine.
Surprise! I didn’t have an apple on me that day. Only a pear. So what’s wrong with pears? Nothing. Did it turn out just as well as with the apple? Answer: yes.
I spy with my little eye something beginning with B, hmmm I wonder what that could be? That would be Brandy. Italian run-of-the-mill brandy that I use for cooking. The brandy may not be chee-chee but the cut-glass bottle is, wouldn’t you agree. I have peeled the pear and very roughly cut it up.
Start by sweating and sautéing the chopped onion in olive oil.
Add the chicken livers, soon after, when you feel like it.
Add the capers and the fresh herbs, straight away after that and cook away.
After the chicken has cooked for a few minutes, let us say around 8-10 minutes or at least when the inside is not longer ‘bloody’, add the pears.
Add the anchovies, turn the heat up, and finally pour some brandy and cook for a further minute or so.
Livers have cooked, as has has the pear, anchovies have ‘melted’. Turn the heat off. Remove the rosemary and the sage (which I didn’t, as you can espy in this photo, but really you ought to) and add a good dollop of butter. Which will obviously melt with the heat of it all.
Wait for the mixture to cool somewhat, then process. Taste, add salt and pepper if necessary. Taste, taste, taste until you achieve your heart’s content.
You can serve the paté warm … with delicious bread or crackers.
And if you need to set aside for a while, cover it NOT with clingfilm. Please. At the risk of sounding who-do-you-think-you-are self-righteous, please can I plead with you to try and use less plastic from now on? I don’t always succeed, I have to be truthful, but I am doing my best. The above pretty avocado-decorated ‘coverlet’ is a present from friends in Australia, the newly-wed young couple Beatrice and Paul (and he a chef). They sent it to me as a present together with their Christmas card. So sweet of them. My friend from New Zealand, Alison, she too brought me over a few of these when she last came – so obviously they are making great inroads in the Southern Hemisphere. Wish I could find more of them here. I believe the correct name is “re-usable beeswax wraps”.
On the other hand, another sweet young friend, the most wonderful creative Mélanie Iorio, mother of two toddlers, has created a beeswax ‘bag’ for storing foods in the fridge or larder or pantry. Look her up on instagram – the brand name is “saccomattobio”, which means “crazy bag” in Italian. The design and decorations are gorgeous! Below is her website. And below that the link the post about the butcher in Lastra a Signa.
And below that still is yet another link (will the links NEVER stop in this post!, you may well ask). One of my favourite old movies is “Funny Girl”. The scene in which Omar Sharif tries to seduce Barbra Streisand in an elegant restaurant. At one point in the duet, he enquires whether she would like a bit of paté? Her answer, not knowing what it is he is offering her, is “Oh I drink it all day”. Nonchalance.
Knock knock! Who’s there? Orange who? Orange-you glad I didn’t say banana again? Ha ha.
I couldn’t resist dredging up this old knock-knock joke because I made an orange cake the other day. And that’s what this post is all about. And the first thing you have to know is that making cakes is not my culinary forte. I baked this cake out of wifely love.
My husband is a good eater and there is very little he won’t bite into (liver and innards, bluntly put) so he is generally a pleasure to cook for. Additionally, although raised in Rome on your typical, very good Roman-mamma menus, he has always been open and even eager to try out recipes and foods from other cuisines – and, again, there is very little he won’t appreciate. When we had lunch in Abu Dhabi once, he ordered a camel hamburger for instance. He still raves about the tomato soup and railway lunch we were served on the train from New Delhi to Agra, the famed Shatabdi Express, twenty years ago. Both of us really enjoyed eating with my relatives in Sweden, friends in Portugal and Tunisia, and of course what is wrong with proper good English food ? Nothing, that’s what. The train from Brighton to London back in the 1990s used to offer the best greasy bacon sandwich and we have drooled over many a great pub meal or Sunday roast. We love English cheeses and English bubbly is nothing to sniff at either. There you go.
When it comes to breakfast, he is a bit of a ‘wobbler’, as I put it. He appreciates a savoury one but wobbles over in the direction of a sweet one. When my sister came to visit last year just days before lockdown, she brought over batches of crumpets knowing how much he appreciates a crumpet on occasion. Full English breakfast, bacon, sausages and all? Bring it on. But not every day. Continental breakfast with Eggs Benedict? Tout de suite s’il vous plait at the nice hotel. Marmalade on buttered toast? Yes please. The one thing he, like every single Italian I know to whom I’ve offered it, could not countenance has been Marmite. This man was able to delve into raw fish, snails, small birds, very bleu blood-dripping meat, camel meat and yet the whole Marmite ‘thing’ just didn’t make sense to him. Strangely enough, I ‘caught’ him spreading the thinnest amount on some toast just a few weeks ago. Imagine the surprised look on my face. With his usual aplomb, he informed me that, actually, it wasn’t so bad after all. Hmm. Wonder where that came from. My husband ‘thinks’ for a living (seriously) … it is the sort of thinking that then goes into organising conferences or think-tanks or writing papers or books. It requires a lot of concentration. And, perhaps you may not know this but our brains require an incredible amount of ‘energy’ when thinking. Our brain is the largest ‘consumer’ of our body’s glucose. But we also tend to crave salt when we are in a bit of energy overwhelm, thinking wise. So, who knows, maybe that day he craved something salty – just as I crave crisps when stressed. What do you crave?
All this to say that, on the whole, my husband has remained ‘Italian’ as far as breakfast is concerned. Which is to say, on a day-to-day basis and when not on a trip abroad or staying with friends etc, he will desire something sweet for breakfast. He drinks two to three cappuccinos (small ones) until lunch. I don’t have a sweet tooth on the whole and that explains, in part, why I am not a good dessert or cake maker. I can make him a jam tart (crostata) and I can make some pretty good Tuscan-style almond biscuits (cantucci) and the doughnut-shaped thick biscuits known as “ciambelle” that are typical of around here … and that’s about it. The rest we buy sort-of-thing.
Then, last year, I stumbled upon a recipe for a sponge cake that looked so easy (for a non baker like me) that I simply had to make it! And make it I did, more than once. It was so simple ingredients-wise that I memorised the recipe and forgot all about it until two weeks ago. This memorising business had not gone as well as I had hoped. I just couldn’t remember the amounts. So off I trotted, good little dutiful wife that I am, to pore over notes and search the internet for the original and, ta daa!, glad to say I found it without great difficulty.
It requires a big orange …no need to peel. Read that again: the orange, the whole orange and nothing but the orange (actually, better to remove pips if there are any). Butter, sugar, flour, pinch of salt, eggs and a raising agent. You plop everything – yes, every single ingredient – into the food processor and drum-roll, voilà … you have cake mixture (or is it cake ‘dough’ or ‘batter’ – ouff, never mind). Butter the cake pan and bake until done. Brilliant. For some reason, the cake did not rise as much as my efforts last year, which was a little disappointing – but it tasted just fine so who cares. My friend Liz who is a very good cake maker suggested that I add the rising agent at the very end, when all the other ingredients had already been processed. So I took her advice, and she was right. This time the cake rose to a more pleasing height.
When we go swimming, I get teased mercilessly by people over the amount of time it takes for me to get into the water (usually the sea). I don’t know what it is about my body’s thermal system, I certainly don’t seem to have inherited my Scandinavian genes in this respect, I just can’t bear getting into cold water. Or, rather, what I consider to be cold water. And no, diving in just does not ‘do’ it for me – never has. Once in, however, I can swim for a very long time – longer than the others who tease me for my slow entrance. Anyway, over the years, when people who love me and know me want to encourage me to get in, I ask them “is it Jo proof?” (my name is Josephine but everyone calls me Jo).
I feel something similar about cake making. This orange cake is most definitely “Jo proof”. This is a cake I can bake and be proud of. Go on then, you too have a go?
P.S. For those of you who are professional cake makers compared with me, you might also want to take a look at the Torta di Arancia on Stefan’s blog. Stefan never disappoints: https://stefangourmet.com/2021/01/31/orange-cake-torta-allarancia. Most coincidentally, Stefan and I were making an orange cake at the same time! Great minds think alike. And yes, NOW is the time for good oranges in Europe.
The first thing to do is turn the oven on, at 180°C. I always go for the fan oven mode. I have been told that this is a no-no when it comes to baking but it has always worked for me so … that’s what I do. After that, butter your loaf pan or cake pan.
Then, if your butter is not already at room temperature, put it in a small pan and gently melt it.
Place the 3 eggs, pinch of salt and sugar in the food processor and pulse until blended. Then add the flour and blend that too. Then add the cut-up orange and blitz everthing, so that the orange zest gets reduced to tiny bits. This all happens in less than a minute, you do realise? The important thing is to add the raising agent only at the very end (as per instructions from my friend Liz). Done!
Use a spatula to pour the cake mixture into the loaf pan and bake for about 40 minutes.
When the cake came out of the oven, I was beaming like the Cheshire cat! How beautiful, the scent so fragrant.
And then disaster struck. Look what I found on the kitchen countertop, that I had not noticed before?
Oh yes …. the butter! I had forgotten to add the butter in my haste to take photos for this post!
Fortunately, according to my grateful husband, it tasted just fine! Even without the butter.
My next door neighbour Rossella also approved. Good. Oh, and by the way, what I did was slice the cake in three parts and wrap each one in very damp greaseproof paper, to keep it moist. It’s not like my husband can eat a whole cake in one or two days!
A long (and heroic) title for a short post. In which our heroine staves off a sad dinner.
Sometimes leftovers can offer an exciting opportunity to come up with ‘something new’, they add an extra notch to our personal feel-good creativity-board. Sometimes, it’s just the opposite, the leftovers are soothing, they represent a welcome respite from the rigours of dinner making. Even for someone like me, I who love to cook so much … there are times when I’m simply not in the mood or a bit on the tired side. And yet another kitchen situation is when the leftovers are neither here nor there; one knows one has to use them up but … but their allure has gone, and it feels almost as if one is being culinarily ‘punished’. A case of when the proverbial “waste not” is very wanting indeed.
The food on offer the other night was a brace of roasted quail and some very bland, sad-looking pan-cooked chicken. The kind that is served as hospital food as we call it. I get grumpy over ‘bad’ food, I can’t help it. Something had to be done to salvage dinner. I looked in the fridge and espied a handful of limp rocket leaves. Hmm. I remembered that many years ago I used to pan fry slices of chicken breast and serve them with orange slices and a ‘sauce’ made of olive oil, lemon juice and ruchetta – arugula or rocket or whatever you want to call it. That sauce should do the trick, I said to myself. I added a clove of garlic too, this time. And a good pinch of salt, of course.
Anyway, I put all the ingredients in the elongated tumbler and began whizzing away with the immersion blender. It was a wee bit too thick so I added a tablespoon of water, and carried on. Brrm, brrm, brrm went the blender, and as it all came together, it dawned on me that it wasn’t that different from making mayonnaise. And that’s when I had the Eureka moment: aha! Why not add an egg yolk? As it happened I ended up having to add two egg yolks. And yes, voilà mesdames e messieurs, we have rocket mayonnaise! The bold over-the-top green of colour was a reminder of the Incredible Hulk, remember that TV series?
Not only did it save dinner, in terms of pleasure, it made me realise that I could make this again and again and serve it with all kinds of fare: salmon? Roast beef? Boiled potatoes.
There is a lovely TV personality on Italian TV called Chiara Maci. She cooks, she writes, has a blog … that sort of thing. Her parents hail from both North and South of Italy but Milan is her home from what I gather. More recently, she travels all over the Peninsula to visit home-cooks who belong to an association called “Le Cesarine” which is all about home restaurants. The Cesarine home-cooks undergo a strict vetoing in order to pass muster and they are under obligation to cook what is typical of their town or regional cuisine – a rule that they are more than happy to comply with, it goes without saying (so why do we always say “it goes without saying” and thus in effect say it?). That is the beauty of their menus. We get to know about many dishes and recipes that would never appear in an ordinary restaurant.
I happen to be a sucker for TV food programmes but some get to be a little on the tired side after a while and even in this series, called “L’Italia a Morsi” (Italy by the Bite), it’s not like the protocol/sequence varies much. Chiara Maci goes to town, visits a host of all kinds of food shops, vintners, cheese makers or other artisanal produce – the list is endless – and then makes an appointment with a local “Cesarina” and goes over to cook and eat with her or him and hear all about the local specialities. The repast is then eaten en famille, and friends and family have helped to set the table and take part in the conversation during the meal.
What makes Chiara “different” from a few other TV personalities is that she is so un-selfconsciously ‘sunny’ (has a huge smile showing off her very white chompers); true, she does ‘do’ that intense looking-into-the-camera routine à la Nigella but she does not put on an act (not that Nigella does either, I am thinking of other TV hosts). Chiara is uncondescending, unpretentious and ‘natural’. She dresses well – meaning that I like her sense of style – but she doesn’t do that God-awful Italian ‘thing’ that some Italian women unfortunately succumb to of ‘overdressing’: unabashed bling, bobbed-up boobs and bombshell high heels. Our Chiara is classy just by donning casual or even ‘comfy’ clothes. She has two children, the second with her husband, the famed Sicilian chef Filippo La Mantia. I am not sure but I think she might have been a single mother before. Anyway, here they are below, looking very glam – and happy !
In the episode set in Rimini (the town that gave birth to film-maker Fellini), her Cesarine home cook walked her through the recipe of today’s post. I took notes and was all agog to replicate it. Manfattini con le vongole is basically a fish broth containing tiny limpets of home-made pasta as well as shelled clams, and proved to be most delicious. Will I make it again any time soon? Hmmm. That depends.
The recipe is somewhat misleading in its simplicity: all it calls for, after all, are home-made pasta and clams. Ha! But what it really calls for – spoiler alert – is a lot of patience! Every single wee clam needs to be divested of its shell for this recipe. Yes, you read correctly – every single one. Imagine extracting 2kg ‘s worth of teensy vongole from their shells! Never again. At least, I will not put myself through this agony again on my own. Maybe if the travail can be shared with a sympathetic friend, over a glass of wine and some good-quality gossip (i.e. not the nasty kind). So, my blogpost friend, read on just for the fun of it. I am almost sure no one who reads this is ever going to make it.
Ingredients for the pasta: 200g flour (preferably the Italian 00 kind), 1 egg, and a little bit of water.
MAKING THE PASTA
Once you’ve made the pasta and kneaded it until it’s nice and soft, roll it into a ball. Usually, it is a good idea to let the dough rest for about half an hour. In our case this respite is not necessary. All one has to do is slice the dough into rounds first; then ‘roll’ each round into a thick rope. Last, cut the ‘pasta rope’ into ‘chunks’ the size of your thumbnail, or if you prefer, the size of a gnocco. Have fun strewing a lot of flour over these chunks. I shall go into further detail further on, with photos to better clarify, okay?
Ingredients for the sauce: some garlic, parsley, chilli (optional), extra virgin olive oil, half a glass of wine, tomato passata and some concentrated tomato purée, a slither of lemon zest and – last but not in the least bit least – 2kg of those tiny clams that are known as “lupini” here in Italy. I suppose you could use other clams, why not.
WHAT TO DO
Start praying to San Lorenzo, patron saints of cooks. Put some music on. Make yourself a cup of tea or grab a gin and tonic, depending on time of day.
The first thing to do is to open the clams and retain their liquor. That is super easy-peasy. All you do is place the clams in a pan, cover with a lid, turn the heat on and wait a few minutes until they have all opened. Below is the precious liquor. Set aside.
Here are the cooked clams, shell-free – one only still clinging to its shells.
And here is the proof-positive of my labours! the empty shells in the dustbin. At this point, put the vongole back in their liquor – so that they don’t harden or go all rubbery. Set aside.
Time to make the sauce.
As you can see, it’s a case of the usual suspects: olive oil, garlic, parsley, some tomato paste as well as tomato passata and, finally, some peperoncino (fresh chilli in this case, twas the season). I won’t comment on the next few photos: they are pretty self-explanatory.
And voilà – you have your seafood broth. This is what you have done (I love how I write ‘you’ rather than ‘I’ – I’m still smarting from all that clam-shelling effort):
(1) you have sautèd the garlic in some extra virgin olive oil, adding a hint of spice with the peperoncino; ((2) poured a little wine and (3) added the liquor of the clams together with a handful of chopped parsley; (4) you’ve then added about one cup of passata as well as a squeeze of the tomato paste and (5) you’ve added a little water and a surreptitious amount of lemon zest. Simmer for about 15 minutes. Remove the lemzon zest and set aside.
There is a lot of “set aside” going on here, have you noticed.
Okay … now we can get on with the pasta.
You can now heave a sigh of relief. The worst is over.
Slice the dough into what? six fat discs? The slices are about half an inch thick. Then, slice each disc and roll the dough into the shape of a rope. Finally, slice the ‘rope’ into chunks.
Like this, see?
Make sure you have plenty of flour handy.
And when you’ve made the “manfattini”, dredge them in plenty of flour and have fun distancing them from one another so that they do not cling togehter. At this stage, they are somewhat ‘sticky’. And, dare I say it, yet again I mean? Yes. Set aside. They have to dry out a little, you should not cook them right now Give them half an hour.
When it is time to eat, add some water to your fish broth if you think it needs it, and bring to the boil. Taste and see whether the broth needs the addition of salt (it does, trust me – I’m just being gastronomically correct). At this point add the manfattini (shake off their snowy coating of flour before you do so, as in the above photo) and cook until they are done. It should not take more than 4 minutes or so. Add the clams towards the very end – yes, they need to be warmed up but no, we don’t want them to overcook. So perhaps we are speaking of one minute. Two minutes? I don’t know. I just cook and hope for the best. A little bit of practice and common sense always come to the rescue.
It was a lovely summer’s day and we enjoyed the manfattini and clams in the ‘clamshell’ that is our wee balcony. I don’t normally like to drink wine at lunch time (makes me sleepy) but how could I not on this occasion.
PS The clams in question are the little ones, which we call “lupini”.
Chiara Maci, Italia a Morsi, Le Cesarine, Minestra di Manfattini con le Vongole
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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).
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
Olives to keep us going as we lay the table.
A glass of wine – not Frascati !
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!
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 !!!
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.
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!
It is stuffed with seasoned, uncooked rice and then roasted.
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.
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.
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!