Easy Dinner Party Dish: Aubergine, Stracciatella and Confit Tomatoes

I came across some mostly sensible and encouraging advice by luxury designer Shalini Misra via a recent article in House and Gardens entitled “How to Host a Dinner Party” (see link at the bottom).  I love dinner parties – meaning, just to be super clear, inviting friends and family over for dinner and hoping to create an overall atmosphere that is nowhere near formal or stuffy.  I can just about seat 12 people at our dining table, a bit of a tight fit, and it’s a good job people I know don’t smell of BO.  Any more than that and I resort to a buffet.  In fact, sssssh, in some respects I prefer a buffet when there are more than 8 people for dinner because you can do the rounds and chat with everyone instead of being ‘stuck’ with just one or two.  Anyway, what baffled me about Ms Misra was her consideration of the menu.  Listen to (or rather read) this:

“It might be tempting to cook something very extravagant and put a lot of work into the menu. While this is admirable, think about planning a meal that doesn’t take you away from guests for too long.”

So far so good, I totally agree.  It’s the next pearl of wisdom that made me guffaw.

“It’s for this reason that Shalini often opts for Japanese cuisine. ‘Start the dinner with tuna tartare and lobster with yuzu aioli, followed by truffle buckwheat risotto, before a delectable selection of hand and sushi rolls. For the final flourish, flourless dark chocolate fondant tart served with matcha ice cream.’ Not only is this a delicious and spoiling meal for guests, most of it can be prepped in advance, freeing you up to be the attentive host keeping the drinks and conversation flowing.”

What? Seriously?

Let us set aside the price range of this menu (lobster and truffle). I love lobster, which I last ate in Boston back in 2014.   I have had the good fortune to eat truffle on a good many more occasions, especially when in Umbria, and a friend of ours sent us some truffles he’d picked only last year. So I’m not quibbling over the cost of the ingredients nor the choice of Japanese cuisine, which I adore.  But let’s take a look at prepation of the dishes.

(1)Making a tuna tartare is very do-able (but you have to ‘freeze’ the tuna beforehand so as to kill unwanted bacteria and whatnot). 
(2)Cooking a lobster is not a huge feat either but fiddling about with it afterwards in order to serve/plate it does take some culinary practice not to mention patience. 
(3)I often make home-made mayonnaise so the aioli wouldn’t be a problem. 
(4)I’ve only made sushi three times in my life and that was over a decade ago and again, at a pinch, not entirely unfeasible to produce.  On the other hand one must ask oneself why it takes years for a Japanese cook to master the art of sushi-making. Ahem and hmmm. 
(5)As regards the buckwheat risotto … sigh.  I just thought it … ‘nah’.  What’s Japanese about a risotto? So contrived. Considering that  both rice and buckwheat are gluten-free why not just make a proper rice-based risotto and save the buckwheat for making blini?. On the other hand I suppose if one has already served rice via sushi, it’s silly to repeat the operation with a risotto, whatever. Or perhaps, aha! Gotcha!, Ms Misra is doing a sneaky keto culinary job (buckwheat being low on sugars), considering, also, that her chocolate fondant tart is ‘flourless’.  But to each his own and all that.  And we should all eat what we like, when we like, etc.

My quibble is entirely over the supposed clever ease of this menu.  What? Are you kidding!  From which I conclude that Ms Misra has a cook or ordered in – there is no way she cooked this dinner herself.  There is nothing simple whatsoever about her choice of menu for a home-cook despite it being true that most of it can be made in advance. 

Now that I’ve got that off my chest with a resounding harrumph, let me get on with my recipe for today which is instead and hurrah truly simple!

I copied it off the chef from Puglia Daniela Montinaro the other night while falling asleep in front of the TV.  Rather, upon waking up AFTER falling asleep in front of the TV and this would have been very late at night, close to midnight.  Chef Montinaro runs a restaurant called Le Macàre di Alezio, not terribly far from Gallipoli in the Salento area of Puglia.  Her recipe for aubergine/eggplant is so simple that even in a very drowsy state I was able to take it in.

INGREDIENTS

Aubergine, olive oil, salt, the inside of burrata called stracciatella, confit tomatoes, thyme, basil

METHOD

Make confit tomatoes.  There are loads of recipes on the internet for this. Basically all you do is slice baby tomatoes in half, sprinkle salt and a teensy amount of icing/powdered sugar, a few drops of olive oil and some fresh thyme (or even oregano if you prefer, or why not, even basil). Roast in an oven, very low heat, until slightly caramelised.  It can take one hour – even more.  I wanted to hurry up so I roasted the tomatoes at a higher heat for less time. 

Peel the aubergines, slice in half lengthways.  Use a brush to slather plenty of olive oil all over the sliced aubergines.  Chef Montanaro preferred to do this inside a large metal bowl.  Then place on a roasting pan cut-side down in a very hot oven for about 20 minutes.  The temperature was 220°C. Next time I might roast them for a further five minutes.

Once cooled, slice the aubergines, sprinkle salt.  Add the confit tomatoes and the stracciatella as well as a chiffonade of fresh basil leaves.  Drizzle a little excellent quality olive oil and the job is done.

The tomatoes and the aubergines can be prepared the day before.1

Here the two aubergines I roasted.  I sliced them before roasting them.

2

The rest of the ingredients: fresh basil leaves, confit tomatoes and, in the round bag, the burrata.

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I proceeded to slice the aubergines in thick pieces.  This is how I plated it – on a long oblong serving dish, shaping it into a kind of Smiley face.  I had a big fat grin on my face that’s why – talk about easy peasy.

4

I know everyone thinks I put too much salt on my food but believe me … I did have to add a wee bit more salt to make all the ingredients sing together.

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Anyway … it soon got polished off and that’s what matters.

I had made a first version a couple of nights previously, served in a round dish.  It was fine, lovely etc, but that’s when I decided that the aubergine needed to cook a bit longer for the next time.

MJQT2834

https://www.houseandgarden.co.uk/article/how-to-host-a-dinner-party

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The Assets of Asparagus – Discuss

What’s there to discuss? They’re the shape of spears, they make your pee pong, they are there to tell us that Spring has sprung, and, if you like them, they really are finger-licking delicious since etiquette/table manners says we can eat them with our fingers. In England a National Asparagus Day was established on 23rd April and this coincides with St George’s Day, he of the dragon-slaughtering fame. Maybe the asparagus shape is reminiscent of his spear? Asparagus lend themselves to all kinds of cooking methods: steaming, simmering, barbequeue-ing or roasting. I like them sesoned just with olive oil and lemon juice. Or accompanied by home-made mayonnaise. My friend Sandy taught me how to roast them with loads of unpeeled garlic, and I remember serving them once with orange juice instead of lemon juice. I’ve never tasted the white kind, something to look forward to. And I have often made asparagus soup (https://frascaticookingthatsamore.wordpress.com/2016/02/21/vellutate-di-asparagi-cream-of-asparagus-soup) using frozen asparagus, as well as asparagus risotto. Wild asparagus makes for memorable pasta sauces (.https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2014/03/17/friends-who-forage-pasta-with-wild-asparagus-tagliolini-con-asparagi-selvatici/) I like asparagus tips to blend in with peas and broadbeans too.

They are what I call a very friendly veg, they almost seem to want to smile at you. I adore aubergines/eggplant, for instance, but they are a lot of work, always. Potatoes also take their time. Asparagus, instead, are chronologically correct. Speaking of which – meaning my mention of Father Time Kronos – following my last whinge of a post that included Nathnial Hawthorne’s “wail of a woe” with reference to my existential state of late, well, I did my best to get myself out of that state (high time too). And tackling a new recipe is one way of distracting oneself from a rut. This one called for friendly asparagus and cheerful strawberries being paired, what fun! I added some baccalà (cod) to the mix and the result was B+ to A- on my scale of flavour satisfaction.

It is very easy to overcook asparagus if you’re not careful but this recipe requires that you cook the spears even a wee bit less than normal, because they need to be sliced in half. I simmered them in salted water, drained them and plonked them into an ice bath before proceeding with the knife. I proceeded to make the tomato salsa:

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I then sped off to have an aperitivo – which was a very good idea. I finally got to meet up with some friends (we hadn’t seen each other since just before Christmas). But of course I got home a little on the late side – which meant I had to speed through the cooking as opposed to taking a nice relaxing time over it. The aesthetics suffered as a consequence but I can live with that.

INGREDIENTS

Asparagus, strawberries, grated parmigiano, lemon peel and lemon juice, olive oil, cod

Tomatoes – the best you can get hold of – which are blended into a salsa with some olive oil and basil. Some garlic if you like garlic?

METHOD

Start by cooking the asparagus and set aside.

Then: Using a cookie cutter, sprinkle a thin layer of this grated cheese onto a non-stick pan.  I made four.  You can make these in advance.  Cook until the cheese melts and forms a wafer-thin biscuit. Some turned out better than others.

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Then, using the same pan in you like, why not, add olive oil and lemon peel. 2

Now it’s time to cook the baccalà, the cod.

3

It doesn’t take long for it to cook.  It will release some of its liquor or liquid or whatever it’s called.  I usually exhort people to sprinkle salt aplenty if they want their food to taste good but in this case be careful: baccalà is pretty strongly flavoured already, watch the salt.  Turn the fish over once only to finish cooking it.

4

The prevously cooked and sliced asparagus now enters the picture.  Re-cook for the briefest time in the pan, hoping it will mop up the flavour of the cod’s liquor.  Neat, huh?  No waste.  Sprinkle a little bit of lemon juice over the asparagus.

Slice the strawberries.

Assemble the serving plate (this one was for two people).  I lay the baccalà on the serving dish and spooned some of the toamto salsa over it. I then layered the asparagus and straberries on top.

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I drizzled a little more olive oil over the asparagus and fish.

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I suppose I could have sliced the strawberries in a neater fashion.  I suppose.  Yes, but.  Yes but it was time to eat and we were hungry.

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It’s amazing how the flavours all came together.  The parmiggiano complemented everything – as cheese is wont to do, so no surprise there.  The wafers added crunch.  The strawberries a sweet acidity and bla bla bla bla bla.

Eat up, it’s good!

 

As Time Goes By …

Is there a recipe for Time that we can all adhere to?

It is often said that time is money.  But time is … life.  When time ends, life ends.  I find it interesting how it is quite possible to ‘read’ people in terms of how they view and value time and time-keeping.

In Italian there is a term to accommodate, if you will, the likelihood of people being unable to honour an appointment punctually on the dot, for reasons unforeseen (a punctured tyre, say, or an unexpected lengthy session to do with abdominal dejections) and that phrase is “il quarto d’ora accademico”.  Translation? The ‘academic quarter of an hour’.  Why ‘academic’? Because it originated centuries ago, in Italian universities, to cater for the logistics of their campus footfall (let us remember that watches were a much later invention).   Time was metered out by the church bells, chiming on the hour and thereafter every quarter of an hour.  It became common practice for a lesson to actually begin 15 minutes after the appointed time.  The student knew that he (in those days it was exclusively he-people allowed at university) had 15 minutes to move from one hall or classroom to another.  Indeed, this practice is still current at the University of Lund in Sweden, and even in the States.  There is such a thing as “Berkely Time” too, only the minutes for leeway are ten and not fifteen (https://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Berkeley-Time-10-minutes-late-university-policy-13182558.php). 

These days, and outside university halls, an academic tardiness is considered acceptable on the whole if you are meeting up with friends for an aperitivo or supper.  Traffic in and around Rome is predictable in its unpredictability and people show great forbearance with it comes to hanging around for friends to show up.  Though I am lucky enough to be able walk to a bar for an aperitivo from where I live, I have been known to show up 10 minutes after the agreed-upon time because I tend to bump into people I know or need to pick up something quickly at the greengrocer’s.  Just ask my friend Michelle, she can confirm, she of www.easyfrascati.com.  My friend Liz, my other regular partner in crime at aperitivo time, sometimes has trouble finding a parking spot and that’s another cause for ritardo accademico.  Put bluntly, the convention is that hey, you know what?, people are sometimes late and it’s okay.  That’s life.

A convention my mother thoroughly disputes.  My mother will have no truck with late-arriving individuals, not even if we are talking one minute (!) and proudly proclaims that she is “German” that way – Germans, I could only presume as I was growing up, outmatching any other country when it comes to time-keeping, which is odd if you think about it since the Swiss are usually more renowned for clocks and precision work, no?  Whatever.  How many times have I heard her extol the virtue of Swedish dinner guests gathering outside the front door of their hosts five or ten minutes before the appointed dinner time, and waiting for the exact moment before ringing their friends’ door-bell!  Granted, she harks back to the mid 1950s but, whereas this custom is heady music to her compendium of acceptable behaviour, I find it utterly sad, not to mention ridiculous, and I am sure no one behaves like that in Sweden any more.  My mother is gifted with the patience of Job if there are any delays at the airport or at a waiting room of any kind, whereas I get antsy and consider this time truly wasted.  A few years ago, poor thing, she had to undergo a brain operation for a subdural haematoma.  The operation was postponed three times altogether – because other emergency, life-saving procedures had to be carried out before her own too got to be considered an ‘emergency’.  First the surgeon said it was scheduled for the Friday, then postponed to the Saturday and finally it was the Monday. I don’t know how my mother did it, she kept calm and hardly ever complained.  Her example was truly exemplary.  But.  Yet.  But and yet, the slightest tardiness makes her go ballistic. 

So, as you will appreciate, I was brought up to respect the value of doing things on time – to say the least!  I consider myself your average punctual person … I do not like to miss trains or planes, or show up late for appointments.  Yet for some reason, my mother considers me to be deplorably unreliable when it comes to time-keeping.

Interesting, then, that hers was the one car that showed up late at my wedding.  Indeed, she was not even aware of her most un-academic delay (she brushed it off as the roads being busy or something, she wasn’t at all mortified).  Brides are always nervous on their wedding day, it’s a well known fact.  Our wedding was a summer evening one, just under an hour’s drive from Frascati, with the dinner planned to be served al fresco.  On our drive there, the car my father and I were in got caught up in an explosive hail-storm on the motorway, so much so that we had to stop by the side of the road it was so  bad; and my father sitting next to me, instead of calming me down and/or giving me the little speech about leaving the fold, fell soundly asleep.  When we arrived, the weather had cleared up, thank goodness and all the guests and family gathered in happy and eager anticipation. Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock … where’s mummy?  Where is Agnese?  I was getting very jittery.  My father made up for his car-drive nap and spotting a café across the road strode there purposively with me, a French colleague/friend of mine trotting behind us (she was our official photographer).  He ordered a whisky for me (he was Scottish).  My friend Jeannette was aghast.  “Mais non, pas de whisky … “ but I have to admit it did do the trick.  Minutes later my mother shows up all smiles and oblivious to all the angst she had occasioned.  I have to admit that I was pretty upset and it was all I could do to defuse my chagrin.

Many years later, my friend Libby made a comment that has stuck with me.  “Have you noticed Jo,” she said, “how people who pride themselves on being punctual always greet late-comers with pursed lips and disapproving looks?”.  Too true, too true. And Libby, it has to be said, was not one for being super punctual – but it wasn’t because she was being rude or inconsiderate.  Rather, because she was doing too much, on the whole, and fitting everything in doesn’t always comply with sticking to a rigid schedule.  People who are often late without wanting to be inconsiderate are also very often those who contribute the most to the community.

zedyes

LATE PEOPLE

It was around the same time that I was doing a course to become a Girl Scout Leader (yes, I know, I know – who would have thought, eh?, I least of all if you had asked me even a year beforehand).  Anyway, as I recall, part of the training had to do with group behaviour and encouraging communication and an environment in which the girls would feel safe etc.  When I filled in the question form there was one that went something like this: “One of your girls is ten minutes late for your weekly meeting.  How do you react?”.  Whatever it was that I answered turned out to be wrong.  The correct answer was, and I shall never forget it, “Hello.  So glad you were able to join us!”.  The thinking behind this was that we should always remember that we cannot know WHY a person shows up late.

Now, when it comes to people who are habitually late and hence inconsiderate and downright rude – well, that’s another discussion altogether.  That’s where I become my mother’s daughter. 

And then, last, there are those who are chronically chronologically clueless (CCC), who have no idea of how time works.  They can’t tell the difference between one hour or three hours.  That’s when things get tricky because sometimes these are people we are fond of.   At an outdoor evening get-together that we organised last Summer, at a friend’s house in the country, I knew a certain somebody wouldn’t show up in time to help with the setting up and enjoy aperitivo time together, before the actual supper.  Still, even I was surprised that said person showed up at 10 o’clock when dessert had already been shared!  Another friend of  mine?  She ended up divorcing her husband for other reasons, but his incapacity to understand time-keeping (he being CCC) was no small contributing factor to the dissolution of their relationship.

If punctuality be the courtesy of kings then my husband and his family are sovereign to the chronological hilt.  Unlike my mother, they do not go ballistic and just like my mother, they like to be punctual.  Only, their idea of being punctual is arriving at an appointment even half an hour early.  Always too early in my opinion, as the following story can attest.  My in-laws were invited to a wedding.  They got there so early the church hadn’t even opened.  That is not my idea of healthy time-keeping.  When I used to drive my children to school, back in the day, nine times out of ten we got to the school at least five-eight minutes before classes started, occasionally even slightly earlier.  When my husband and I left our children with my in-laws when we went away on a trip, they were only too happy to look after them.  My father-in-law got the kids to school half an hour before classes began!  And that ruined my son for life … be became one of them.  My daughter, fortunately, less so.  In the hereditary battle-game between families, my Kronos gene lost the war.  And that means I have to accommodate to their style and have had to find clever ways of insisting on some kind of compromise. 

As no doubt happens with you too, certain factors have to be taken into account whenever my husband and I need to be somewhere at a certain time: we work out how long it will take, fingers crossed, and that means, also, what time we should leave.  That’s where I eventually took a leaf out of my mother’s book.  If we decided it was a good idea to leave at around ten, say, I noticed my husband would start getting itchy feet at around 10 to 10.  So now I make sure we decide at exactly what time we need to be “in the car” !  None of that “Monsoon Wedding” – remember the film? – “exactly and approximately” stuff !  The magic formula is called “in the car time”.  In-the-car gives him reassurance that we won’t be late and me that we won’t leave too early!

Thus it was that a week ago last Monday my husband and I had to go into Rome to have our first anti-covid vaccination jab. 

My appointment was scheduled for 14:40 (i.e. 2:40 pm) and my husband’s ten minutes later (by the way, the vaccination programme in Lazio is doing a marvellous job, super organised, well planned etc).  It was a good idea to drive down to the closest underground/metro station and take the tube to Termini Station.  We worked out that it would be a 10 minute walk from the Station.  It was studiously agreed that it would be a good idea to get to the station at 14:20 (i.e. 2:20 pm) latest.  And that way, we’d still have plenty of time to stroll to the vaccination centre.  All of this meant leaving home, just to be sure, super sure, at 13:15 (i.e. a quarter past one pm). 

As I was getting myself ready, I noticed that my husband was showing evident signs of the itchy-feet syndrome but I stuck to my schedule (the schedule we had both agreed upon don’t forget).  It was too much for him and off he went to the car just after one o’clock.  I joined him in-the-car at 14 minutes past one (i.e. even one minute earlier for goodness sake than we had agreed upon).  Sometimes you just can’t win. 

And yes, we got to Termini station even before two o’clock with just under 40 minutes to kill.  Killing time is a horrid expression – I wish we could come up with another. Making the most of time, we went to the bookshop and browsed around.  I love bookshops, I can browse till Kingdom come!  So this tale has a happy ending.  I came away brandishing a new book.  Its title is “How we fell in love with Italian Food” and it is written by an academic, Diego Zanicani, and thoroughly approved by Anna del Conte who described it as “A book after my own heart”.  I have started reading it and can definitely recommend it, it is eminently readable.

Book Italian Food

The author mentions another author, the American Nathanial Hawthorne, and his trip to Italy with his family during the 1800s.  It’s interesting to read about people’s reactions to foreign cuisines at the time.  Hawthorne was most unimpressed with the wine he was given to drink somewhere in Tuscany.  “Positively, I never tasted anything so detestable – such a sour and bitter juice, still lukewarm with fermentation; it was a wail of a woe, squeezed out of the wine press of tribulation, and the more a man drink of such the sorrier he will be,” (page 104).

A wail of a woe.

Isn’t that how we’ve all been feeling these past few weeks, days and months?  I don’t know about you but I seem to have lost interest in cooking.   Meaning, I do cook every day but where is the verve? The enthusiasm? The sense of satisfaction or even achievement?  I have been very much in a “wail of a woe” mood when it comes to conjuring spark into my repasts.  And yet meals ought to be the most enjoyable time-keepers of the day, if you think about it?  Breakfast, lunch, tea and supper.  Satisfying one’s hunger isn’t the same as enjoying a meal.

The Book of Ecclesiastes has a chapter about there being a time for everything (see link below if you are interested), the one that begins: To every thing there is a season; and a time to every purpose under the heaven.  The other verse I’d like to quote is: I know that there is no good in them, but for a man to rejoice, and to do good in his life.

I have to find a way to get back to my former cooking self. 

Now is the time to do away with any existential delays, academic or otherwise.

Now is the time to remember Proverbs 15:15 – He that is of a merry heart hath a continual feast.

This is my ‘recipe’ for today.

Spuds “Royale” – Otherwise Known as Gattò di Patate

I am reposting a post I wrote almost 10 years ago – when Prince William and Kate were about to marry.  Their wedding made me think about the wedding that took place between Marie Antoinette’s sister Maria Carolina and the somewhat eccentric King of Naples, Ferdinand.  And how Parmentier’s eager encouragement of the potato led to even wealthy people now eating the humble spud.  Except that the ingredients that accompanied the potato were far from humble – as befitted aristos.

A Royal Wedding and a misspelled cake – gattò di patate

A Royal Wedding and a misspelled cake – gattò di patate

I was musing over the forthcoming wedding of Kate and Wills the other day and imagining what a nightmare a royal banquet must be these days for the planners and organisers.  Can you imagine! — it’s not just a question of choosing a few dishes and putting a grand menu together, oh no, you’ve got to take into account how ‘gastronomically diverse’  the wedding guests are going to be.  There are bound to be vegetarians,  and not just vegetarians but vegans too, and then there are those who cannot eat pork, and then there are those who are celiac, and then there are those who have intolerances and finally those who are beset by allergies.  And then of top of that, you’ve got make the menu as ‘British’ as possible because royal weddings are as patriotic an event as you can get.  Some things never change.

Flash back to 1768 and picture, if you will then, the Italian brigade of kitchen staff vying with the newcomers, the French chefs, all banding together to plan and prepare for the wedding of Marie Caroline (sister of Marie Antoinette) to Ferdinand, King of Naples.  There is a dish that is typical of the Campania/Naples region called ‘gattò di patate’ made up of mashed potatoes, eggs, butter, cheese and ham.  And it is accepted historical kitchen lore that the dish was specifically ‘invented’ on the occasion of this royal wedding.

It is unclear whether the inventors of the dish were the French or the Italian chefs at court but it is generally agreed that that the dish was indeed created in the royal kichens of Naples and that all the ingredients, save for the very French use of butter of course, were all available locally, all very Sourced-in-Kingdom-of-Naples.

The name ‘gattò’ is a corruption of the French word ‘gateau’ and is not the only kitchen term to have found its way into the Neapolitan culinary parlance … ‘gattò mariaggio’ is what became of ‘gateau du mariage’ and the appellation ‘Monzù’ for a high-ranking chef is how ‘Monsieur’ was rendered in pidgin; croquettes became crocchè and ragout became ragù.  One of the most elaborate, fancy and famous of Neapolitan monzu-inspired dishes is the meatball-filled rice-cake ‘sartù’ which probably derives its name from the French ‘surtout’.   It’s amazing what a royal wedding can spark off, isn’t it!

Anyway, if gattò di patate was good enough for Marie Caroline and Ferdinand, it’s good enough for me!  I love it and so does all the rest of the family.  It can be eaten hot but it’s usually eaten at room temperature.  It can be a meal in itself, accompanied by a crisp and rich salad.  Fantastic for stand-up dinners, for picnics and for parties.

POTATOES – THE MAIN INGREDIENT

Boil some potatoes (as many as you are going to need, be sensible), drain them, and mash them.  There is no need to worry too much about the consistency of the mash, we are not making a purée of mashed potatoes.

Shave some butter … quite a lot of butter actually … in fact, loads of butter … into the mash.  This is for a wedding banquet remember, no one is on a diet.  One variation of this recipe calls for some milk.  I don’t think it needs it, but you decide for yourself.

The potatoes are still very hot, so it’s easy to melt the butter while you mash.  When you have finished, grate some nutmeg into the mash.  Add salt and pepper.

THE OTHER INGREDIENTS

Here on the table are the rest of the ingredients.  Two eggs, ordinary ham cut up into small squares, slices of buffalo mozzarella that has been drained for a bit to get rid of excess liquid (we don’t want our gattò get soggy), grated parmesan cheese, and breadcrumbs (in the white canister behind the ham).  On the right is the oven dish.

ASSEMBLING THE GATTO’

Butter the oven dish all over and then dust with breadcrumbs.

Beat the eggs and add them to the mashed potatoes and mix them in.

Add the grated parmesan cheese and mix it in … Taste the potato mix and make sure you like the taste … add a little salt or pepper if need be (but make sure the pepper is white, not black).

Divide the potato mix into two, more or less equal, amounts.  Then use half the mix to line the oven dish, one serving spoon at a time.

Line the sides of the dish too.  Pat the potato mix down with the spoon and try and make this layer even.

Add the ham.  You could also add salame and mortadella … there are quite a few variations to this recipe as regards cured meats.

Add the mozzarella.  Just so you know, it is also very common to add either provolone or scamorza cheeses at this stage too.  I prefer it without.

Add another whole layer of the potato mix.

Sprinkle breadcrumbs all over the top layer.

Dot this layer with knobs of butter … be generous ….

Stick the oven dish in the preheated oven at 180° centigrade and cook for about 45 minutes.

And here it is just out of the oven.

And this is what it looks like when sliced … silly me, I didn’t take any other photos that would have done justice to this most royal of ‘gateaux’ — the potato cake known as ‘gattò di patate’.  Try it some time — I promise you, you won’t regret it!

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Jo’s Own Carbonara Mayonnaise Tip

Little could Kay Chun imagine what an outpouring of indignation her New York Times recipe for tomato-infused carbonara would unleash, particularly in Italy – it stands to reason.  That said, I follow many non-Italians who know a thing or two about food on Facebook and they were similarly outraged. 

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Being a professional chef, you’d think Kay Chun would have learned a lesson from the oh-woe-is-me response to Gordon Ramsay’s previous revisitation of carbonara on youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5t7JLjr1FxQ), in which he advises the audience to add crème fraiche and smoky bacon to the recipe, as well as a touch of olive oil and, horror of horrors, masses of garlic! Oh and mushrooms too while we’re about it. He mentions  milk for some unaccountable reason.  Fresh peas to round it off. And all of this in order to make it ‘more exciting’. 

Question: what is ‘unexciting’ about carbonara in the first place? 
Another question: why do we have to make recipes more ‘exciting’ than they already are?  Jokes – countless jokes – have been made about bedroom behaviour and the lackadaisical, if not downright pathetic, once-a-week missionary position sex. Fair enough. It’s good to shake things up if that is indeed the case.  The same does not obtain in the kitchen department, however.  A good recipe is just that, GOOD.  Leave it at that.  Do not paint the lily.  Do not gild the lily.  Leave well alone.  However, if your quest for excitement cannot be quenched … well then. Do as you OCD please, by all means.  Add cornflakes if you think it will add a je ne sais quoi, or gorgonzola, why not?  But in the name of good pasta governance, please, please, please, give it another name.  Do not call it carbonara.  Because that is an insult to carbonara.  And by the way, there are some variations on carbonara in Italy too.  I’ve had one with truffles.  There is a seafood version.  And there is a vegetarian version (courgettes).  There cannot be a vegan version because eggs are the whole point of a carbonara.

Actually, in historical or chronological terms, it is the pecorino cheese that has given birth to the main four pasta dishes of Rome and central Italy. 
Number one is “Cacio e pepe” – literally, just pecorino cheese and pepper. 
Number two is the Gricia (adding pork and its fat to the grated pecorino). 
Number three –  by adding tomatoes to the Gricia ingredients, you end up with Amatriciana. 
Number four is the Carbonara.  I place it last on the list because its existence, testifiable existence that is, harks back to just barely after the Second World War and there are all kinds of theories and legends as to how it came to be created. 

All you need to know and accept for now is that a Carbonara has only four ingredients: guanciale, eggs, pepper and pecorino. Important to realise, however, and this will indeed gobsmack many Italians and not just foreigners, is that the recipe for carbonara as we now know and rave about it in Rome, i.e. using guanciale instead of pancetta, not a hint of cream, not a whiff of garlic God forbid!, actually ‘came together’ as late as the 1980s. There were all kinds of previous renditions before this gastronomic apotheosis, and they got thankfully relegated to the “never-again” file of the pasta world.

Ramsay opts for parmigiano. Had he resorted to the preferred cheese for this recipe, i.e. pecorino romano, he could have achieved all the excitement he was after and shortened the shopping list by four ingredients.  And, most of all, not riled the Italians or people of the world who have a healthy respect for unadulterated Italian cuisine.  As for Jamie Oliver, he too should have known better than to add garlic (though he gingerly removes it just before serving, a plus point) but otherwise gets it right (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D_2DBLAt57c).  Bravo, phew.

I realise it is can be difficult for some non-Italians to appreciate why many Italians are prickly about renditions of their food by foreigners (and it’s not just foreigners, there is much local and regional interfighting too).  Why they think that drinking a cappuccino after a big meal is sacrilege.  Why, put bluntly, they are so prescriptive about their recipes and the way they eat.  It would take a whole book to consider these issues which is obviously beyond the scope of this post.  I raise the question, on the other hand, because the matter of “cultural appropriation” is finally getting the respect it deserves and I am personally fed up with segments of society who take the piss out of other people’s values.  Case in point, for instance, is The Guardian writer Tony Naylor’s take on Spaghetti Bolognese. The title alone can spark off a heated pasta spat, for in Bologna the sauce is the tried-and-tested traditional accompaniment to egg noodles, “tagliatelle”, and not spaghetti): https://www.theguardian.com/food/2021/jan/29/how-to-eat-spaghetti-bolognese.  I found his stance truly appalling.  I couldn’t get to the end of the article, I found it so annoying.  I expatiated hands-on-hips about it on Facebook, I just couldn’t let it go.  But now that a few weeks have transpired and I have been able to draw some healthy distance from such nuisances both culinary AND cultural, I feel I too can write a post about carbonara in which I offer a couple of tips that I consider helpful.

As mentioned, Jamie Oliver’s technique and ingredients (except for the garlic) are spot on.  I love his passion too, which never hurts when one is cooking. I am a firm believer that our emotions are a vital ingredient in our cooking.  We produce better results when we cook with ease and relaxation or enthusiasm.  Anyway … yes, Jamie Oliver makes it look very easy but in actual fact his technique could be a little physically daunting for some … and the outcome might very well be curdled-carbonara instead of creamy carbonara.

BACKGROUND

It dawned on me one day that making the egg sauce for the carbonara could be thought of as a mayonnaise of sorts, with the fat rendered from cooking the pork jowl standing in lieu of an oil.  And it went from there.

Recently, it also dawned on me, that if one prepares the carbonara sauce the way I am about to tell you, it can – unheard of!!! – actually be prepared in advance, even 24 hours in advance (perhaps more but let’s not push it).  All one has to do is store it in a sealed container n the fridge, the way one does with ordinary mayonnaise.  Now, tell me that isn’t an advantage?

The third advantage is … these TV chefs we all admire (and do indeed merit our admiration of course) … who are they cooking for? Meaning how many people are they cooking for? Right?  That’s right.  Usually one person, maximum two. Now, if you are having people over for lunch or supper and there are going to be six or more of you, say … ha! … what then, eh? What?  All that sautéing business with the saucepan, that acrobatic tossing up in the air and catching of pasta – it can be learned, admittedly, I am not bad at it myself.  But you try doing that with 600g upwards of pasta instead of just 100g or 200g!  Mmm. Not easy.  So … my tip obviates the necessity for such flexing of arm exercise.

Ready? Here we go.

INGREDIENTS – ONLY FOUR OF THEM AND NO MORE! (Well, pasta, water and salt too which makes Seven in all if you want to be picky)

Eggs – First of all, nearly all Roman chefs eschew the use of a whole egg – they use only the egg yolk and that’s how I’ve been making my carbonara for the past ten years now.  1 egg yolk per person plus 1 more if it looks like it will help.  Especially if your eggs are small ones.  (You know how it is with the pot of tea?, same sort of thing. I teaspoon of tea leaves per person plus one for the pot.)

Pasta – 100g per person is a very healthy ‘helping’.  If there are going to be 4 of you, you may as well make that 125g per person so that you use up the whole half-kilo pasta packet.  Spaghetti marry wonderfully well with the carbonara sauce.  I suggest you use short-shaped pasta, such as mezze maniche or rigatoni, when you are making larger amounts.  They are far easier to handle.

Pork fat – Think of 30g/40g of guanciale preferably (otherwise pancetta if can’t find any or, yes, even bacon if that’s all you can get hold of) per person. Watch out though: if the bacon or pancetta are too salty, you might be better off using smaller amounts

Cheese – pecorino romano is the ideal.  If you find this too strong, you could go half and half with parmigiano.  Parmigiano on its own, however, doth NOT a carbonara make.  Carbonara is not for the palate of sissies.  It is robust. So, think of using 1-2 tablespoons of freshly grated pecorino romano per person. Set a little more aside, just in case.

Pepper – toast the peppercorns until their aroma is released (usually less than 1 minute) then bash them about with a mortar and pestle. 

JO’S CRAZY METHOD

(1)The first thing to do, is put the water on to boil.  Then slice the guanciale and cook it over a low heat so that it renders all its fat.

(2)While this is happening, place the egg yolks and pecorino in a processor.

(3) When the fat has rendered, allow it to cool a little, and then pour it over the cheese followed by the egg yolks.  Set the cooked guanciale aside.  If you are going to be eating the carbonara straight away, place it in a large bowl.  If you are going to eat the following day, place it in a sealed glass jar in the fridge.

(4) The water should be boiling by now.  Add 10g of salt per litre of water. Put the pasta in to cook for as long as it takes to reach a pleasing ‘bite’, what’s known as ‘al dente’ – as opposed to overcooked mush!  Follow the instructions on the pasta packet but use your own judgement. And decide when the pasta is indeed cooked to your satisfaction.

(5)  Half way during the cooking of the pasta, or when you are 5 minutes into the cooking, remove about 1 cupful of the cooking water. And set it aside to cool down somewhat.

Time to blitz!

(6) Process the rendered fat, egg yolks and cheese.  The consistency should be thick.  Now add some of the cooking water, a tiny bit at a time.  Taste.  Does it need a little bit more cheese? Yes, no? If so, add a bit more pecorino.  Process again.  Until you reach a beautiful creamy consistency.  Now add the pepper to finish it off.

Again, just as suggested above with the cooked guanciale, you can use this sauce straight away, or else safeguard it in the fridge in a sealed glass jar for use the following day.

(7) Pour the carbonara cream into the large bowl and place it where it’s handy for you.

(8) Because you still have some water reserved from the cooking water, you can drain the now-cooked pasta into the sink.  Alternatively you can add the cooked pasta, a little a time, directly into the large bowl that is ready and waiting.

(9) Use one or two wooden spoons to make sure all the pasta is coated with the sauce (none of that tossing).

(10) Sprinkle a little more pecorino on top and serve.

Here are the photos.

Below … I am slicing the guanciale, and I’ve put the water on to boil.

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Above is my mise-en-place.  I have weighed 200g of pasta.  There are the three eggs that I am going to deal with, separating the egg yolks from the egg whites.   And I’ve just used the small food processor to grate some pecorino.

And below is the glass bowl I will use.  Mortar and pestle.  And a little cup for the cooking water.

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Next:

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On the left I am cooking the slices of guanciale over a low heat.  On the right I am lightly toasting the peppercorns.

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Once the guanciale has toasted to a delightful crispness, I transfer it to the large bowl in which I shall season my pasta once it has cooked.

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I wait for the rendered fat to cool down a little, and then I put it in the processor together with the grated pecorino.

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The water has come to a boil, I add the required salt.  I put the pasta in the boiling water.  (Please ignore the steaks … they have nothing to do with the carbonara.)

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The pasta is cooking merrily away.  I have bashed the peppercorns to my sastisfaction.  I have added three egg yolks and some pepper to the processor.  The egg whites will go in the fridge – I might even freeze them.

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I have blitzed the egg yolks, fat and pecorino.  I taste the mixture and decide it needs a little more pecorino.

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More blitzing.

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Time to add a little of the cooking water.  It is still hot, but it’s not boiling.

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I add a teensy more cooking water and my crazy mayonnaise-carbonara sauce is practically done!  How easy was that?

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I pour all the sauce into the large bowl containing the guanciale.

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I drained the pasta in the sink.  Now it’s ready to go into the bowl.

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And here is my daughter mixing the cooked pasta with the sauce.  Using a wooden spoon.  No tossing with fear of tumbling – just steady stirring.

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As you can witness for yourself … it’s as creamy as can be.  No dreaded curdling!

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Ready to be dived into but not scarfed down (never hurry a carbonara ….).

PS I have ordered a book by Luca Cesari all about the history of pasta recipes and their origin, “Storia della Pasta in Dieci Piatti”. He rages against ‘gastropurists’ who think they know all there is about a recipe without any real proof of how it came about.  I can see I am one of those who will get their knuckles rapped if I’m not careful, ha ha!!!

 

 

Oranges and Chicken Breast

Years ago I wrote of a way to brighten up drab chicken breast – it made sense then, it makes sense now. Basically it’s about adding some zest to your chicken breast.

So I am reposting: https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2010/12/19/the-doleful-door-stop/

zest

The Doleful Door Stop – Chicken Breast and Orange Slices

Posted on December 19, 2010 by myhomefoodthatsamore

I had started this piece a nearly a week ago but my temperamental computer went into awry mode and had to be taken to the computer doctor to get better.  As a result, especially in terms of efficiency, the last few days have been a little befuddling for me and it was brought home to me how important it is for us, when we are in a bit of a hurry, to be able to put together something nice for dinner without a lot of fuss.  So I do hope the dish I am proposing will impress its ease upon you as it did upon my daughter when she first started cooking for herself.

BACKGROUND STORY

It just so happened in her second year of university that she ended up spending a few months living with my sister (herself no slouch in the stove department) and they took it in turns to prepare supper and got on, culinarily speaking, very well indeed as a whole.  When I chanced staying with them for a few days, and the three of us were deciding what to eat one evening, my daughter proposed we cook “petto di pollo”, i.e. slices of chicken breast that one cooks in a frying pan.  I would have gone with that proposal, thinking it a very good idea, but my sister looked totally unconvinced and so we opted for something else.  We had a repeat performance from her the following day, and then again after that, at which point I found myself somewhat perplexed – this unwillingness to go along with a suggestion was not the normal behaviour of my very easy-going and sweet natured sister.  My daughter and I shrugged our shoulders and exchanged glances of bewilderment.  Later that evening, my daughter confided to me that my sister would never let her make “petto di pollo”.  Strange indeed but there were more interesting and other important topics of conversation for us to share and so we left it at that.  The matter would have rested there, I suppose, had not I stayed with them again some time later; on this occasion, I maternally stepped in, in favour of my daughter’s proposal and insisted we have “petto di pollo” for supper.  “I don’t know how you can bear to eat petto di pollo!”, my sister complained.  To which both of us answered that, true, it may not be the food of the Gods but there was nothing wrong with it either, a very suitable midweek dish if ever there was one.  My sister looked at us as though she were indulging a set of very wayward children who wanted to be difficult at all costs.

Picture her face, then, when she unwillingly consented to put some of this fare into her mouth!  She shut her eyes, re-opened them with a startled gaze, and let out all kinds of sounds of enjoyment as she chewed and swallowed.  Now it was my daughter’s and MY turn to be unconvinced … was she pulling our legs?

No, no she wasn’t.  She was loving every minute of it, it tasted divine.  She wanted to cry.  “I wish I had known it tasted so good, I would let you make it countless times!  You see, whenever I conjured up visions of “petto di pollo”, I thought of what they used to serve us at school … yuck!  It was like a wedge … all horrible consistency, and dry texture, so difficult to swallow, and it just wouldn’t go down your gullet.  It was just like eating a door stop.”  Hence the title of this blog.

For such an easy recipe, this dish does require a basic but very important approach that should never be taken for granted — and that is how and when to flour a piece of meat prior to cooking and how much oil, butter or clarified butter to use to avoid the dreaded door-stop effect.  The other tips or hints concern how to peel an orange if you want to cut it in round slices and last and never least, how to look after your fingers when chopping anything with a large knife.

Repeat: this is a very easy recipe but in order to show you how easy it is, I have had to take a massive amount of photos.  So I shall provide ingredients and instructions first and photos after, okay?  Okay.  And every time you cook this dish, which can be done using lemon instead of orange, or butter and sage instead of those, or yet again some slices of ginger and olive oil only, remember our manifesto: we eschew the door-stopper in favour of the show-stopper.

INGREDIENTS

OSP: Oil (extra virgin cold-pressed olive oil), salt and pepper

Thin slices of chicken breast

Some flour to dust the chicken before cooking it

2 oranges

Optional for today’s recipe is the Radicchio (this is a chicory too! – remember my last blog on cicoria and my dilemma with all things chicory?). The variety I used is called “radicchio di Treviso” and I like it because it takes no time to cook and is not as bitter as some of its chicorial cousins.

PROCEDURE

When it comes to sautéing any meat the Western way, not the high-heat Wok way, it is indispensable that there be PLENTY of fat to coat the meat and prevent it from going dry and rubbery and ‘orrible.

The clever cook always knows what size of pan is required every time he or she is going to cook meat this way.  A smaller pan for less meat, a larger pan for a greater amount of meat.  It’s only a question of logic.

The rule of thumb is the following: make sure the entire bottom of the pan is covered in either olive oil or melted or clarified butter, depending on your preference.  And don’t worry about the amount of fat: you do not have to eat it all, you can leave what you don’t like behind.   I love fat myself and don’t have a problem with it but some people do and it disgusts them.  So, repeat, eat however much you like and leave the rest on the plate.  HOWEVER, unless you use LOTS of fat when sautéing the food … you will end up with some inedible lump of meaningless meat … and that would indeed be a waste as well as a pity.

(1)  Put some flour in a large plate or bowl so that you can easily dredge each slice of meat in the flour, pressing down firmly on both sides.  And by firmly, I mean firmly.  Press hard with your fingers.  Then shake off the excess flour.  IMPORTANT: do not attempt to do this in advance, it will spoil the dish.  The meat must be dredged in flour only just before it is to be cooked.  So remember the importance of timing …

(2) The oil doesn’t even need to be very hot when you put the slices of meat in it and indeed you don’t want to apply a high heat, a medium one will do.  You turn the slices of chicken breast over ONCE only, when they are done on the first side.  When they are cooked on both sides, that is the time to pour the orange juice over the meat and cover the pan with a lid for a couple of minutes.  Add salt and pepper towards the end and serve.

One last detail: depending on the amount of chicken fillets to be served at the dinner table, you will probably be cooking the meat in batches of a few slices at a time.  If so, remove the first batch of cooked slices from the pan and transfer to a serving dish temporarily.  Cook the second batch and transfer to the serving dish and ditto if there is a third batch.  At that point, when finished, put all the slices of chicken breast back into the pan, turn up the heat and now pour the orange juice over them.

This is one of the oranges: cut it in half and set aside.  Peel the other orange, trying to remove as much of the white stuff as possible (I know it’s good for you but in this recipe we don’t want it).

Here is the other orange: sliced into rounds — set this aside too.

Now pour the olive oil into the frying pan …

See?  The bottom of the frying pan is entirely covered with olive oil.

FLOURING THE PETTO DI POLLO

Press down very firmly on one side …

Turn the fillets over on the other side and …

press down very firmly on the other side too …

Shake off the excess flour.

THE COOKING BEGINS

Don’t be in a hurry … place each fillet gently, one at a time …

There is the radicchio in the background ready to be chopped …

The fillets are cooked on one side, now turn them over on the other side (turn them over only once!)

When cooked on both sides, transfer to a serving dish for a few minutes.  Now it’s time to use the oranges:

Slide them gently in … the oil isn’t at a fierce temperature but it’s still hot!

Turn the orange slices over once too, using a set of tongs ..

Slide the chicken fillets back into the saucepan …

Add salt and pepper to your liking … Then fetch the other orange that you had halved in two and ..

Squeeze hard and get as much of the juice out of the orange … and then cover the saucepan.

Cook on a low heat for a few minutes to allow the chicken fillets to absorb the citrus flavours and in the meantime:

Chop the radicchio.  Please notice how I tuck in the fingertips of my left hand to keep them out of harm’s way!  Knives can be very dangerous so please please please ALWAYS keep your fingertips curled under (as above) when chopping anything …

Almost ready …

That black “thing” you see on the right-hand side is a black peppercorn.  I just adore black peppercorns and sneak them into nearly everything I cook because I think they impart a je-ne-sais-quoi to any preparation.  But that’s just me, you don’t have to.  The reason I mention it is because that peppercorn in the photo could be mistaken for an insect or something nasty …

Aren’t those colours simply gorgeous!!! (yellow and red just like the colours of the Roma football club)

Use a wooden spoon to carely mix the ingredients together.

TIME TO SERVE!

Transfer the chicken fillets cooked with slices of oranges and with orange juice and chopped radicchio di Treviso to a serving dish, one at a time.  (It might be an idea to keep the serving dish in a hot oven prior to this …)

However hard I try, I always manage to get things a little messy on the plate but ….

All one has to do is get hold of a napkin or some paper towel and wipe the rim of the plate clean before serving.

Petto di pollo all’arancia: and may your dinners always be good!

ROAST CHICKEN SAUNA

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

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Here it is perched on a bamboo steaming basket nestling inside a dutch oven.  

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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

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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.

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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.

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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

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It smelt divine …. Roast chicken is a happy-inducing smell.

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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.

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And no photo can do justice to the whiteness of the chicken’s flesh, nor its suppleness and softness.

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Plenty of gravy … good to add the spinach now.

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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

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As mentioned, here are the potatoes being boiled in the broth that had resulted from the steaming of the chicken earlier.

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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.

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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?

The Fried Tagliatelle Dish Invented by the Town of Monterubbiano

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).

Clock

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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/ .

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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.

2012

Cauliflower Cheat Cannelloni

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. 

HACKING BECHAMEL

Version 1:

I wrote about the beauty of this white sauce in an old post: https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2011/03/17/the-queen-of-sauces/.  Follow that recipe and you can’t go wrong.  Then, only about a year ago, I decided to ‘experiment’. 

Version 2:

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.

Version 3:

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.

INGREDIENTS

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.

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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.

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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!

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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?

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Here is the mozzarella, slice it up and set aside. Also, grate a good amount of parmigiano. Set aside, ready in waiting.

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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.

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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.

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I seemed to have a lot of stuffing on my hands so I placed some on top of tortillas too – and, finally, the mozzarella.

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A full coat of béchamel all over the tortillas and then the tomato sauce.

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Yes – plenty of freshly grated parmigiano.

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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.

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What do you reckon? Inviting?

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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 ….

Chicken Liver Paté for Chindanai and – while we’re at it – the Real Need for Beeswax Wraps

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.

INGREDIENTS

Chicken livers, olive oil, fresh sage, fresh rosemary, 1 apple , salt-dried capers, anchovies packed in oil, butter.  Optional: cognac or a dessert wine.

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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.  

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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.

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Start by sweating and sautéing the chopped onion in olive oil.

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Add the chicken livers, soon after, when you feel like it.

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Add the capers and the fresh herbs, straight away after that and cook away.

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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.

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Add the anchovies, turn the heat up, and finally pour some brandy and cook for a further minute or so.

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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.

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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.

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You can serve the paté warm … with delicious bread or crackers.

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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.

https://www.saccomattobio.com/?v=cd32106bcb6d

https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2014/06/08/the-chianina-shop-at-lastra-a-signa/