Aubergine Rice Cake Vegetarian/Vegan Version

The first rice cake I made contained tiny meat balls.  And the aubergine (eggplant) slices were fried. 

Here is the link: https://frascaticookingthatsamore.wordpress.com/2020/04/21/sicily-on-my-mind-aubergine-rice-cake/

This time no meat whatsoever, and no frying.  Moreover, if you omit the mozzarella and the parmigiano and the butter – it can also be vegan.  The ingredient that lends itself to a hint of Sicily is cinnamon.

The procedure is more or less the same: fry some onion in olive oil, add tomato and make a tomato sauce, cook for about 15 minutes.  Add cinnamon powder to the sauce as well as salt, and then add the rice (mine was carnaroli, you could use arborio if you prefer) and some basil (fresh) and, why not, some oregano (dried) ?  Cook the rice, stirring occasionally and adding hot water or a vegetable stock as needed.  While all this is going on, slice the aubergines and cook them on a griddle.  Use a brush to coat one side with olive oil and turn them over once only.  Set aside.

If you are an omnivore or vegetarian, now is the time to get the butter out, grate some parmigiano, and slice some mozzarella.  Once the rice is cooked, remove from the heat, and add both the parmigiano and the butter, stirring until all is craftily combined.  If you are vegan – I don’t know what you would do to ‘tie’ all the flavours together: maybe vegan butter? or some almond milk?

Assemble: shove half the amount of the cooked rice into a pyrex dish.  Place the griddle-cooked aubergine slices on top, together with the mozzarella.  Salt and pepper.  Some basil leaves.

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Use the remaining rice to add a second layer to the dish. 

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Basically you are creating a sandwich of sorts.  One layer of cooked rice, one layer of griddled aubergine and some mozzarella. And then another layer of rice.

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A view from the top.  Some of the ingredients like to peek-a-boo.  I tried patting them down without success. 

Sprinkle some breadcrumbs on the surface.

Bake for about half an hour at 180°C-

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Here is the cake just out of the oven.

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And here are the leftovers the day after.

The hint of cinnamon is what makes the difference. I hope you try this and enjoy it as much as my guests did last night.

Italianised Pseudo Salade Nicoise

Variety is the spice of life.
Change is the only constant.
Homeostasis is our body’s biological miracle, running around on ‘adjustments’.

Even so, too much variety, too speedy a change or a surfeit of adjustments can all make life bonkers for us. I feel that this is so even at our table, for what we eat — and that’s for those of us who like to sit down at the table eating our meals in the company of friends or family, indeed who think this is the ‘norm’ – so many people do not; apparently it’s very middle class to sit at the table all together unless it’s a special occasion? So sayeth Pen Vogler in her book “Scoff”. There have been so very many changes and inputs in our diets these past few decades, so many cuisines heretofore unavailable to us, a plethora of ingredients – all very exciting, fresh and intriguing even. But sometimes it gets to be too much.

Too much.

Which is when the sixty-year-old-plus fogeys like us reverently revert to good old-fashioned recipes that have proved their chronological worth. That do not need ‘zhuzhing’ or, as they are wont to say in Italian, ‘revisiting’. Italian cooks/chefs of the last two decades absolutely adore ‘revisiting’ tried and tested family recipes (and thereby ruining them in many cases so far as I’m concerned). True, good culinary technical techniques that these chefs have learned are indeed important and are all about balance in the recipe. What ends up happening, on the other hand, is that the dish is changed beyond recognition sometimes – so what is the point?

I am so grateful for salade nicoise. For its simplicity. For its repeatability. For its deliciousness. I made one yesterday, the way I’ve always made it (except for one ingredient but more about that later). Out of curiosity, I looked up the recipe in Wikipedia just now and was taken aback/flabbergasted at the vehemence surrounding its protocol. I was expecting to not have been totally pukkah but I had not realised just how off the mark my version was! I was surprised to find out that I had made additions that are beyond the pale for the purist – cooked vegetables as it turns out, who knew?, listen to this:

“Former Nice mayor and cookbook author Jacques Médecin was a strict salad traditionalist. His 1972 cookbook Cuisine Nicoise: Recipes from a Mediterranean Kitchen called for the salad to be served in a wooden bowl rubbed with garlic,[5] and excluded boiled vegetables: “never, never, I beg you, include boiled potato or any other boiled vegetable in your salade niçoise.”

And how about this:

“In 2016, French Michelin-starred chef Hélène Darroze posted a salade niçoise recipe on Facebook that included cooked potatoes and green beans. According to journalist Mathilde Frénois, the reaction on Facebook was quick and hostile from the “purists”. Darroze’s version was called “a massacre of the recipe”, a “sacrilege”, and a violation of the “ancestral traditions” of the salad. She was warned that it is “dangerous to innovate”.[10]

So – lesson learned – do not mess with a salade nicoise in France (south of France in particular). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salade_ni%C3%A7oise

But since I am in Italy … I did it my (the wrong) way and went so far as to add – gasp – some slices of mozzarella! To be honest, this addition came about because I happened to have some in the fridge – I do not normally add mozzarella to my salade nicoise. Oh, hang on, another non-French ingredient: rocket leaves (arugula).

The ingredients: tuna packed in oil, anchovies packed in oil, boiled eggs, boiled potatoes, boiled green beans, tomatoes, lettuce, rocket, and the nefarious slices of mozzarella. Plenty of good olive oil, salt and pepper and a spray of wine vinegar. I didn’t have olives or I might have added those.

I wasn’t expecting to write a post about salade nicoise and this is the only photo I took. It doesn’t look at all come-hither inviting but I assure it was just the thing for lunch during an abominably hot Roman day.

Bon appétit as they say in France.

P.S. Here is a link to a very amusing post by David Lebovitz on the subject of salade nicoise, with a recipe for its cousin, the pan bagnat: https://davidlebovitz.substack.com/p/pan-bagnat

salade nicoise

A New (Favourite)Parmigiana di Melanzane Frascati Style

This post is dedicated to my favourite son and to his beloved, his lovely girlfriend Silvia.

I have a favourite daughter too, by the way. And I only have two children. Once the pair of them were old enough to put two and two together, I was asked, twinkle in the eye, as in “Aha! gotcha!”: Well, having a favourite daughter and a favourite son is easy enough. What if you’d had a third child?”

My answer (equally, ‘back-atcha’)?

“Well … that child would have been a favourite too. So I would have had a favourite first-born, a favourite second-born and a favourite third-born.” End of Story. Every child deserves to be a ‘favourite’.

And the same thinking goes for me as regards the Queen of summer recipes in Italy: the parmigiana di melanzane.

The region of Campania and the island of Sicily both vie for its origins and that’s where my diplomatic ‘favourite child’ approach comes in very handy. Was it Naples? Was it Palermo? Should the aubergine/eggplant slice be fried in olive oil alone, or should it be plunged into a bath of flour and egg wash first, before being fried? Who can tell?, sigh, who can tell?, let’s not linger and cast aspersion. Let us instead enjoy variety.

If any of you read my previous post, you will have seen some oven-roasted tomatoes (tomatoes confit) and slices of aubergine/eggplant floured first and then dipped in an egg wash containing: capers, parsely, some grated pecorino and a pinch of paprika. Once dipped, they got fried in plenty of groundnut oil.

Well.

What I did was plonk the tomatoes and some leftover fried aubergine slices in the fridge for a few days. They had to get eaten up by yesterday. In a way, what I had was ‘leftovers’. What to do with these leftovers? Did I mention it’s hot here? And not just here, all overy Europe. I decided that the oven was not an option.

And so I created a new way to cook a parmigiana di melanzana which I think will definitely stand proudly among my favourite parmigiana recipes. Yes, there is the bother of oven-roasting the tomatoes first. There is the technicality of frying the aubergines. On the other hand, no need to turn the oven on to finalise the cooking of the parmigiana. Quite a boon when it’s as hot as this.

This is how I went about it.

I covered the bottom of a sturdy frying pan with a sheet of parchment paper. I then poured a hefty amount of olive oil to cover the entire bottom of the pan.

I then laid the slices of the aubergines to cover the bottom of the saucepan.
Added the oven-roasted tomatoes.
Added the mozzarella.
Added a fillet of anchovy (a new entry where parmigiana is concerned).
I then tightly covered the saucepan with another pan, creating a kind of dutch oven of sorts, and cooked the ingredients for about 15 minutes over a medium heat.
Added the fresh basil at the last minute, when plating the dish.

Seriously, dear reader, it was bloody delicious. Next time, instead of the pecorino, I will abide by the traditional parmigiano but other than that, I will not change a thing! Those of you who hate frying or are too scared to, you could always grill the aubergine slices instead.

Provare per credere, as they say in Italian. You have to try this for yourself if you don’t believe me!

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This is what the parmigiana looked like as soon as I removed the lid. The mozzarella had melted nicely. And the anchovy fillet too.

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This is the bottom of the saucepan once I had removed some of the parmigiana and plated it. You can see the parchment paper lining the bottom.

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Here is the parmigiana on the plate.

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Now was the time to add fresh basil leaves.

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And since I like a bit of crunch, I accompanied the parmigiana with a bit of Sardinian crisp bread called Pane Carassau.

Heatwave and Dionysian Frying Frenzy July 2022

A ‘frenzy’ – what is a frenzy if not a spurt of unbridled enthusiasm (‘god within” is where the word enthusiasm derives from)? Or an unstoppable manifestation of Dionysian (as opposed to Apollonian) energy? From Wikipedia: “In Greek mythology, Apollo and Dionysus are both sons of Zeus. Apollo, son of Leto, is the god of the sun, of rational thinking and order, and appeals to logicprudence and purity and stands for reason. Dionysus, son of Semele, is the god of wine and dance, of irrationality and chaos, representing passionemotions and instincts. The Ancient Greeks did not consider the two gods to be opposites or rivals, although they were often entwined by nature.”

I am one of the few who does not mind heat, even intense heat.  Whereas I can’t abide the cold, it makes me cry, it drains me of vigour and vim.  It is true, however, that even a moderately high temperature – say in the region of 32°C – demands of us that we … sloooooow down (as well as drink a lot of water).  Recourse to a modicum of sloth and slowing down is not appreciated by Western culture which would have us on the go, on the move, active, trotting about, getting things ‘done’, being ‘productive’ all the time (puritanical????).  Hmm. Hmm again. 

Slowing down puts us on the road to ‘being’ as opposed to ‘doing’.  And ‘being’ is one of the hardest things to master for our monkey mind.  That’s why we pander to the distraction of feeling ‘useful’ and ‘getting things done’.  Heat, intense heat, gets in the way of that and makes us very uncomfortable … I am naturally aware that the discomfort caused by heat is real for many people, so I am not saying they are making things up, no.  But I do have a niggling feeing that the overall disagreeableness is not just about the body.  The spirit is being called into account too.

I wish I had a swimming pool.  I love swimming in the sea. I am a water baby, and a bare-foot baby too.  The summer makes me happy.  And yes, I do slow down … I have to.  And I enjoy the sensual part of slowing down.  Taking things easy.  And yet, sometimes, when it comes to cooking, as happened the day before yesterday for instance … I somehow get caught up in a frenzy.  The drive and industriousness that comes over me is most peculiar.

People think me mad for wanting to deep and shallow fry on a hot Summer evening.  Let them.  All I know is that we enjoyed a lovely meal of fried frenzy.

It was preceeded by a hot oven – I had made pomodori col riso, tomatos stuffed with rice, together with potatoes.  As my daughter pointed out a few years ago, it is ironic that so many summery Italian dishes require a hot oven for their preparation.

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You can espy two of those rice-stuffed tomatoes in the bottom right-hand corner. On the left are some confit tomatoes (may as well make confit tomatoes since the oven was on). In the middle are some left over spaghetti … they too got ‘fried’ as in ‘frittata di spaghetti’.

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I covered the spaghetti with a plate until it was time to cook them again. I put the confit tomatoes away, for another day.

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It was hot, very hot, and I did the unmentionable: I added a few ice cubes to my glass of white wine.

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Pecorino romano – grated.
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Add capers.  And minced parsely.

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Add 3 whole eggs, bit of milk, salt and pepper and a little sweet paprika.  Whisk into shape.

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Slice aubergines and dust each slice with a thin coat of flour.

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Dust with flour (flour first is the mantra) and then dip in the egg mixture before frying.9

Fry in plenty of oil (peanut/groundnut oil in this case).  And the spaghetti were being reheated in the background too.  Over a very low heat.

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While all that was going on, meanwhile, I was soaking some courgette/zucchine blossoms in warm (not cold) water (for about 15 minutes).  This warm bath helps them regain their heft (they stop being ‘droopy’.

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I had prepared the simplest of batters with just ordinary Italian 00 flour and very cold water – with a wee pinch of baking powder and a tiny dribble of olive oil.  I stuffed the blossoms with mozzarella and an anchovy fillet and then drowned them in the batter (still cold from just out of the fridge).

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Please notice I used a different frying pan with fresh new oil.  Frying requires respect: it requires oil that isn’t fried to death.

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A good pinch of salt.  “Il fritto vuole il sale” is the Italian saying – fried foods want their salt.

And that’s it … no more photos.   Dinner that evening consisted of the stuffed tomatoes, the fried aubergine, the fried blossoms AND, I hasten to add, a fresh salad loaded with rocket leaves and dressed with olive oil and lemon juice.

You’ll be glad to hear that I calmed down considerably after dinner and was only too happy to flop onto the sofa and watch some TV, the windows wide open, allowing a cool (well, almost cool) breeze to wend its way into our flat.  Dionysus was pleased with me (he overlooked the ice in the wine glass).

 

 

Dabbling à la Ottolenghi with a Vegan Cabbage Concoction

Those who are friends with me in ‘real’ life as well as those who have been reading my blog for some years now might recall that I am prone to teasing poor Mr Ottolenghi – who is, undoubtedly and deservedly, the darling of 21st century ‘nouvelle cuisine’; if anyone brought freshness and resounding new vegetably-nutty-fruity tastes to the kitchen during the better half of the last two decades it was most definitely him and his former cooking partner Sami Tamimi, with their roots in Middle Eastern flavours (https://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/profiles/how-we-met-sami-tamimi-yotam-ottolenghi-8857491.html). 

Only recently, last year in fact, did I find out that Mr Ottolenghi actually trained at Le Cordon Bleu and that, to me, explains why he simply cannot wrest away from adding yet another je-ne-sais-quoi food or spice to the myriad of ingredients on his shopping list.  He thinks ‘normal’ dishes are boring.  And he may be right.  If it weren’t for cooks like Mr Ottolenghi, we would all be eating same ol’ same ol same ol’ all the time.  My quibble is that, for all its deliciousness and gustatory titillation and delight, his food requires … well … a lot of patience as well as a lot of ingredients.  What seems easy and straightforward to him is probably because he has incorporated all the techniques that only a Cordon Bleu course can impart – it’s all just second nature to him now.  I do own two of their cookery books (people tend to forget that Sami Tamimi co-wrote the recipes) and I love to leaf through the images now and then.  I can even lay claim to cooking a few of the recipes, so there.  And, ideally, I would love to physically (as opposed to online) do a cookery course with Mr Ottolenghi himself.  Glad I cleared all this up because … you see … despite my repeated demurral over the Ottolenghi ‘style’, today I found myself, inadvertently, Ottolenghi-ing myself as I went through my fridge and kitchen store cupboard!

It all began with a groan. 
I had been away, in Tuscany, with glorious girlfriends, for just over a week.  Favourite husband stayed at home, keeping an eye on his 93 year old dad and my 95 year old mum and I of course was super grateful and indebted to him.  Nonetheless, I just couldn’t stifle the groan when I returned home and opened the fridge. There hadn’t much in the fridge when I had left but what there was … had just dwelt there, well past its sell-by or edibility expiry date.  Witness dark green, wet, malodorous rocket leaves and other vegetables that had gone limp beyond recognition almost, some with a tinge of green.  It’s amazing what escapes men’s eyes, what selective vision they have, when they need to get something out of the fridge.  They would seem to be singularly (no pun intended) single-minded about their one requirement lodged in the fridge and all the rest fades into the outer reaches of their lateral vision.  Anyway, I promptly threw everything out, quite rightly so, without any misgivings except for some cabbage.  Actually, rather a lot of cabbage.  I removed the sad looking outer leaves but there was still … a lot of cabbage left.

I don’t know about you but it seems to be that we are all much better at doing ‘stuff’ with leftovers as well as not wanting to waste food compared, say, with even five years ago? Put it this way, I feel a lot guiltier now than I used to about not making the most of ALL the food that comes my way.

So that cabbage … that rather large amount of cabbage … simply had to be dealt with that day.  But how?  I can’t say I am a huge fan.  It glared at me with a baleful stare.  Goodness knows why I bought it in the first place.  So, in an effort to feel good about myself, even slightly self-righteous, I thought I would rustle up as many ‘bits and pieces’ in my kitchen as possible and create a ‘new’ if not the ultimate cabbage dish.  The underlying propelling aim being, ahem, how to camouflage the taste of cabbage beyond recognition.

I came across: some basmati rice and a few dried apricots (I suppose that raisins would have been a viable option too).  That was a good start.  I am in love with cumin these days and had plenty of that.  Fresh ginger.  Onions.  No cashews or pistachios, so peanuts had to do.  I had run out of saffron but had plenty of golden turmeric. No Greek yoghurt but I had Tahini paste, aha!  Also, I had my little stash of preserved lemons (lemons preserved in salt and their juice).  A few tomatoes, some lettuce and Bob’s your uncle.  Hmm.

Really? Seriously, I asked myself, Just HOW MANY INGREDIENTS went into this concoction of  yours? Dear oh dear, I was channelling my inner Ottolenghi.  I just had to laugh.

And when we laugh, there is even more magic in the kitchen wouldn’t you say?

INGREDIENTS:
Cabbage, olive oil, onions, dried apricots previously soaked in water, cumin, fresh ginger, toasted peanuts
Basmati rice boiled with turmeric in the cooking water
Tahini paste, lemon juice, water – alternatively some good quality full-fat yogurt
Lettuce or other salad leaves
Ripe cherry tomatoes

I decided to add butter to the dish at one point – and that’s because I think butter makes everything more delicious – but if you omit the butter this dish is then totally vegan.

The ‘after effects’ of this dish were predicable … cabbage causes wind.  Be warned.

METHOD

So begin by soaking the apricots in water until they are soft again, and then drain and chop up.  Toast the peanuts.  And don’t do what I did which was allow a few to burn.

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Bring out your tahini paste and add water and lemon juice to it to make it creamy. If the water is ice-cold all the better. Wash your salad and your tomatoes.

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Pour some olive oil into a saucepan, chop up an onion, chop up the cabbage and get cooking. Add pinches of cumin – as many or as few as you deem to your satisfaction.

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Grate some fresh ginger onto the cabbage … as much or as little as you like.

 

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Bring some water to the boil, add a good amount of tumeric and an appropriate amount of salt and then add the basmati rice.  I see some green ‘bits’ in the photo – search me but I can’t remember what they are.  It could be a bay leaf split in two? Yes, that’s it – it’s a bay leaf.  Optional.

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Once cooked, drain the rice.

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Transfer the rice to the now cooked cabbage, and if you are not vegan add plenty of butter. Turn the heat up a little.  Use a wooden spoon to mix everything up and make sure the melted butter coats all the rice.

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Now add the toasted peanuts.

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I decided that a touch of red would be pretty – so added a few pink pepper corns.

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Everything was now basically cooked and ready to be eaten.  This saucepan being a sort of sauté pan, i.e. rounded in shape, like a dome, I used a wooden spoon to ‘shape’ the rice concoction into a dome shape.

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I covered the saucepan with a lid (a slippery one at that, I hope you have a better one at home).  I turned the heat down and allowed the concoction a few minutes to cook some more, in the hope that the rice would become crisp  – the way a Persian tahdig rice does.
Well, I was over optimistic.
Behold the final result:

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The rice and cabbage concoction did indeed take on a dome shape once I turned it over onto a serving plate.  It also got rather burnt.  Sigh.  Ah well, these things happen in the kitchen, one should always make the most of it.

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Once I cut through the dome, however, I was able to salvage a lot of its contents that were NOT burnt, phew.

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The ‘gooey’ stuff you see on the salad is the preserved lemon.

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And so, as you can photographically witness, all’s well that ends well.  The rice and cabbage concoction served with ripe tomatoes, lettuce, tahini paste and preserved lemon proved to  be rather good.   
I am glad I used up the leftover cabbage in the fridge, for it afforded me a reason to come up with a new recipe, using ingredients that I already had at home.
But, dear oh dear, cabbage is terrible as regards its gaseous after-effects and so I won’t be making this again in a hurry – not unless I select another vegetable as a substitute.

Lasagna Vignarola- and the Feng Shui of Italian Umami

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

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

-pancetta
-guanciale
-sausage
-anchovy.

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

I hope this is helpful?

Anyway, I decided to use sausage.

INGREDIENTS

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

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

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

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

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

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I had my mint and rosemary needles at the ready.

TIME TO LAYER AND ASSEMBLE

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

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

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

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

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The top layer should be crisp and inviting.

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

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

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And here were the aluminium containers I mentioned.

Very useful for transport purposes and no washing up.

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

Cooking at the Casale Sonnino

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

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

I hope you enjoy reading it.

……..

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

 

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

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

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

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

Photo Gallery

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

APPETIZERS
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Pizza Bianca with burrata, Sicilian tomatoes and basil topping

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

PASTA COURSE:

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

Linguine alle vongole – linguine in a clam sauce

MAIN COURSE

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

VEGETABLE SIDE DISHES

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

DESSERT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Putting some Mussels into Gnocchi

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

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

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

GNOCCHI:

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

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

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

Then proceed as follows.

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

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

 

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

Time to plate up.

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

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

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

Mussels with Almond and Tomato Sauce

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

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

Mussels are even mightier with the addition of Almonds

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

PART I

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

Here are the spruced up mussels.

PART II

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

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

Artichoke and Squid Salad

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

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

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

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

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

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Here is the squid … all cut up and latticed …

2

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

3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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