Breathe in, Breathe out: Inspirational Cooking

Life happens in the kitchen.  Life may beget life in the bedroom but it is nourished, literally and metaphysically, in the kitchen. When there is communion engaging the cook with the food being cooked, the anticipation of a good-enough meal  (it isn’t always ‘fantastic’ or ‘superb’)  transforms the experience into an inward journey of reflection.  The kitchen is a place ‘to be’, then, and cooking should not just be a chore.  And there are definitely days when having to cook degenerates into an unwanted chore to add to an already busy or chaotic day. But there’s life for you, ‘stuff’ – not to mention shit –  happens.  In the kitchen as elsewhere.

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Cooking is a love affair. Most people, I presume, cook for other people more so than for themselves and that means they cook for spouses/partners, friends, children, neighbours – which is to say that they cook to bring pleasure (as well as health) to those they care for.   My dear friend Clarissa, who lived in India and ended up dying there (too soon! Too soon!) told me of how many Indians she had got to know regarded eating out with a raised eyebrow of suspicion.  It wasn’t so much about the hygiene or the quality of the food being presented to them in whatever eatery but , rather, the ‘energy’ that went into the cooking process.   Mothers/wives/sisters cook with love – cooks in restaurants or on the street will prepare meals to make money.  With food being regarded as the prime source of energy, it has to be as ‘pure’ and as fresh as possible (which is why, in Indian cuisine, reheating is frowned upon).  The bottom line is that we have to be ‘conscious’ while we are cooking, aware of our feelings.  And when the feelings are not of the best kind … well, then, it is best to take a wee break.  Go to the loo. Throw away the rubbish.  Make that quick phone call you were putting off.  And then return to the kitchen, restored, and drink a nice glass of wine or other soothing drink of your choice.  Even a slight improvement in one’s mood works wonders.  So yes, one should wash one’s hands before starting in the kitchen.  But one should also take a look at one’s soul and ‘wash’ that too, if need be.

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I don’t know whether any of you have seen the 1992 film ‘Like Water for Chocolate’ set in Mexico? Well, the protagonist is Tita, and Tita doesn’t get to have the easiest of lives (I won’t divulge more because I don’t want to ruin the film for you).  Anyway, one of the most engaging scenes in this surreal film is when Tita is preparing the food for her sister’s wedding with Nacha, the family nanny. As they prepare the food some of Tita’s tears get mixed in with the batter. This results in an emotional riot that happens after the family eats the cake. Everyone feels smitten and is pining for their one true love. This happens again after Pedro presents Tita with some flowers. She uses the roses to prepare a sauce. As they are eating dinner everyone feels an intense passion. Her sister even sets the shower on fire with all of her passion.  And in another scene, when Tita is feeling sad as she cooks, the food, though delicious, has disastrous consequences on the bowel movements of the diners.  Well, I am not saying that we should all be like Tita or that we are even capable of such prodigious gastronomic magic but a little bit of that secret ingredient, love, never hurts.  Which is why I keep a postcard on my kitchen backsplash.

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Obviously, I wish I knew what I now know when I first started to cook on a daily basis – but I have also learned so much from kitchen disasters.  Making artichokes is a memorable one.  I didn’t peel enough leaves off the carciofi and though I cooked them for what seemed like an interminable hour, they were so tough I had to throw them away.  Adding wine to a beautiful sauce only to have it turn quite unpalatable:  yes! That’s because the alcohol content of the wine is bitter, so that’s why you have to turn up the heat to encourage the bitterness to evaporate or, alternatively, why it’s not a bad idea to cook the wine before adding it to a recipe.  I was making fish stock, once … taking time to crush the carapace of the shellfish for a better finish, and adding all the ingredients required for a bisque-type result.  I tasted it and pronounced it yummy.  And then I went to drain the fish bones and shells and shallot and parsley and black pepper corns etc … but instead of draining the precious liquid into another pot, I drained the stock straight into the kitchen sink and down the drain pipe.  Oh the dismay!  You can imagine.   Another time, my husband’s cousin visiting from Turin asked me to make the very Roman carbonara pasta for him, as a treat.  He did make the supreme effort of eating it, bless him, but he laughed as he said to me: “Jo, I love your food but … carbonara is just not for you!”.  And that naturally prompted me to keep at the recipe until I got it down pat..  Practice makes perfect, so I suppose we have to encourage mistakes.

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Accidents in the kitchen are a reminder of the resilience we need to build in other areas life, I suppose?

The film ‘Zorba the Greek’ has a beautiful message for us all, to encourage us.  Towards the very end of the film, the investment of Zorba and Basil, the man he calls ‘Boss’, results in utter financial ruin for both of them but especially for Basil.  Zorba, however, is drawn to resorting to laughter, calling this event a magnificent ‘catastrophe’, a ‘splendiferous crash’.  The pair of them end up dancing, in that memorable scene which is a choreography to life (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TlLChcOlLK0).  We all need a little madness, as Zorba recommends, in order to be free.  I very often cook barefoot in the kitchen.  And I’m not one for aprons, don’t ask me why, and don one only when I am giving cooking classes.  I assume aprons reassure the client … and I wouldn’t want to disappoint.

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The above is a photo of me, dancing … towards the end of a cooking class.

Speaking of practice makes perfect.  Conversely, it is also true that there are many pitfalls in striving for perfection at all costs.  I was reminded of this in recent blog post by Dwight Furrow from whom I would like to directly quote:In modern culture we are too easily seduced by perfection. We want the perfect job, seek the perfect look, strive for the best life we can achieve. We try to eliminate all the rough edges and imperfections until in the end we achieve—uniformity, everyone pursuing the same ideal. We strive for that ideal because we fear being different or showing weakness.

That’s boring. There is beauty in the imperfect and incomplete.

Asymmetry, simplicity, raw, unadorned austerity have their own attractions. Drinking from an old, cracked coffee cup, a face marked by an unusual line, a chilly, fog shrouded shoreline, or parched forbidding desert—when something is not quite right we not only experience a sense of  profundity but witness the source of vital creativity in life. A system that is too perfect lacks the diversity to cope with uncertainty. Only systems that allow for imperfection can evolve. There is no growth without adversity.” (https://foodandwineaesthetics.com/2017/03/13/in-praise-of-imperfection/)

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We think we need the perfect kitchen to cook the perfect meal.  True, there is nothing wrong whatsoever with a big, fully equipped, modern kitchen.  I can’t tell you how many times I have caught myself moaning and groaning about the size of my kitchen.  “Why?”, I have wailed out aloud, more than I care to remember, “Why is it that I who love to cook and make meals for a nice crowd find myself having to cook in such cramped conditions?”   So much pining on my part.  And yet I have cooked countless meals in our galley kitchen, for up to 16 people no problem. I am glad that the last 30 years have seen a marked shift in the way houses are now conceived, with the kitchen being seen as the hub of the home and being allotted more and more space compared with our mothers’ generation. And yet statistics would show that people cook less now that they have better, modern,  fully equipped, larger and sexy kitchens!  What does that say about people’s attitude to cooking? The  meaning of cooking?  We all watch TV programmes with celebrity chefs and cooking shows, and salivate over the recipes being prepared but … but … spend less time actually cooking.  Why do we prefer the vicarious experience of watching food being prepared as opposed to the real-life experience of actually making the meal?  I think that maybe we have lost a little of our childlike propensity for playfulness.  Cooking has to be about playing, not just delivering.  The gadgets and the utensils should be regarded as toys, not just tools.  And if we can’t afford the more expensive tools, there are ways to make do with what we already have.  I used kitchen scissors for years before investing in a proper chef’s knife.  Lack of said knife didn’t stop me from cooking.  And I often still do cut the parsley in a big cup with the scissors, what’s wrong with that?

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When my husband and I first started living together, we were bequeathed a pretty good sized kitchen in terms of apartment space.  Four people could eat comfortably in the kitchen, six required cosy quarters. I remember when the oven temperature dial went crazy.  There was no way to fix it, the man said, so I ended up having to gauge the temperature on a hunch!  I would turn the oven on at full blast, put whatever roast in it, and then turn the oven on and off, as I saw fit, until the dish got cooked.  The stove top had only four burners.  I learned how to cook dishes in a particular succession, because four burners weren’t enough with the bigger saucepans taking up all the room, and not allowing me to use the four burners at the same time.  It was like playing musical chairs with the pots and pans, and I had to have a clear idea of how the menu would fit in.  I indulged in a stove with six burners as soon as we could afford it: ah, bliss! Also, I never seemed to have enough countertop space for the preparations or the food.  So I invested in trays.  I would place the food and utensils on trays, resting on the floor.  More musical chairs. Mark, my daughter’s guitar teacher, who came once a week for the lesson used to laugh his head off when he saw trays lying around the kitchen floor or on top of other non-kitchen surfaces.  But he conceded that it did solve the problem of lack of space.  You gotta laugh!

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A few years ago, I was asked to run a few cooking lessons for American students doing a summer session at an international school in Rome.  The person employing me warned me that the school’s kitchen was being refurbished so I had better check with the chef before starting. What she failed to inform me was that there was going to be no kitchen whatsoever during the time I would be teaching, and all I would be supplied with would be a fridge and an electric oven!  Now, there’s a challenge.  We used the school’s desks as countertops. Thank goodness I had been on a few girl scout camping trips, and had some experience of cooking outside.  I had a few propane gas cookers and managed to pull off the cooking classes by filling up my car with all the pots and pans and cutting boards and utensils etc that were needed.  Now that I think about it, it was just crazy, and think I should have been awarded a medal of sorts.

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6The pupils were fantastic, however, and I do hope they will retain fond memories of their experience.

Another great source of joy was cooking for events at our kids’ school – a sports day, for instance – together with other parents.  Sharing food is always inspiring, seeing the expressions of satisfaction and enjoyment on people’s faces.

So, yes, joy can be transported from our home to another space.  Just as a taste of ‘something’ can transport us back to our homes, our sense of security, our sense of self, our sense of rootedness, our community, even our purpose in life.

My husband happens to become addicted, let’s say, to the cantucci biscuits I make.

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The recipe calls for quite a big batch, so I get to make them about twice a month.  It’s what he has for breakfast.  It’s what neighbours and a visiting friend will have to accompany a cup of coffee or tea.  It’s what my daughter will take with her, to nibble at the office with her colleagues, when she comes to visit.  They are not particularly sweet and are full of almonds, and are light and filling at the same time.  I suppose that’s what their pull is, I don’t eat them.

Anyway.  Towards the end of January, a good friend who was going to be celebrating an important birthday chez other friends in France, wondered whether my husband and I would be coming along too, she needed numbers (naturally) in order to organize this weekend.  There were a number of reasons that were making this trip uncertain but fortunately, almost at the last minute, we were able to confirm our attendance.  And we also decided to drive there, it was not very far from Nimes, and we turned this into a little road trip for us to enjoy as a couple.

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We were to sleep in Genoa for the first night on our way up there, and in Sanremo on our way back.  It turned out to be a very enjoyable trip, the birthday celebrations superb and unforgettable(!), and the six-hour drive in two stages not bad at all.  As we had left our confirmation so late, our friend managed to find room for us to stay only in a small ‘gite’, some sort of holiday inn, because the hotels had already all been booked.  I didn’t know what to expect and so got to work.

I brought along a duvet (you never know, the place might be cold).  I also brought along our coffee maker, coffee, sugar, tea, mugs, honey and … some of my blessed cantucci for favourite husband. He thrives on good coffee, and he feels ‘restored’ by the cantucci.  When we got to the gite, it turns out they had a kitchenette so the propane gas stove I had brought along was not necessary.

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The duvet did help, however.  And my husband got to have his favourite coffee, in bed, together with the cantucci.  Home from home.

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I had also packed a rucksack with goodies for a picnic lunch after Genoa.  Wine too, bottle opener, fruit, the works.  We had dinner in lovely restaurants in both Genoa and Sanremo.  But the enjoyment of the picnic lunch was, well, somehow a thrill.  You get to feel alive, eating out. Eating outdoors. Two for the road.  A trip is all about adventure and novelty.  Bringing along some biscuits is all about finding comfort in the known. Somehow, you feel as if you have no cares in the world.

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Have rucksack, picnic rucksack, will travel.

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Have food, will cook.

Jules Blaine Davis’s mother chided her for relying too much on take away/take-out meals in the course of a week.  She told her “We need to make the kitchen a place where you can BE, not a place where there are things you have to DO.”

So many of us do sports, go to the gym, do yoga, or simply walk the dog.  And we all know how important breathing is for our well being, both physical and emotional.  Breathe in, breathe out.  Slowly does it.  Breathe in through the nose, not through the mouth. Breathe in gently, as if you were taking in the scent of your favourite flower: and that will make your sternum open and the diagphram allow more oxygen to be drawn in.  In and out, like the waves of the sea.  The sea I love so much to swim in.

The word inspiration comes from the Latin for ‘breathing in’.  When things come to an end, they ‘expire’ … from the Latin for ‘breathing out’.  I hope my food blog brings you some inspiration in the kitchen, or encourages you to want to BE there more often.  The recipes I make are not that hard, do not necessarily involve expensive ingredients (although I quite understand that some ingredients like extra virgin olive oil are more expensive outside of Italy), and are meant to encourage you to create your own recipes, your way, coloured by a bit of fun and games, the odd giggle and  yes, even the odd tear. We are only human after all.

In Chapter six of Zorba The Greek, he says to Basil: “Tell me what you do with the food you eat, and I’ll tell you what you are.  Some turn their food into fat and manure, some into work and good humour, and others, I’m told, into God.”

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I don’t know about this turning into God business, but I think we can make do with celebrating life, no?

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P.S.  The photos of statues, frescoes and paintings are from the Palazzo Corsini in Rome.

Popeye’s Spinach Patties – Spinacine

The word for meatball in Italian is ‘polpetta’; and the English word ‘pulp’ must surely be related to it, as in when you beat someone ‘to a pulp’.  Pulp as in ‘mushy’.  But while a meatball always contains meat, duh!, in the English speaking world, in Italy the eclectic polpetta can be made using vegetable-only ingredients, or even just bread and cheese. Number one.

Number two. And whereas in English a hamburger contains only meat (unless it’s a veggie burger), the north Italian equivalent of a ground-meat patty (which is what a burger is after all) is called a ‘Svizzera’.  ‘Svizzere’ were what people bought at the butchers before the word ‘hamburger’ become common even in Italy, probably towards the 1980s.

Kyle Phillips wrote the following in a blog post dated 2013 from “Cosa Bolle in Pentola”: “Why the Milanese should have called a ground beef patty a Svizzera is beyond me, but they did, and Svizzere were already quite common in Italy before companies like McD’s began to introduce American-style fast food.  And now in every Italian supermarket and butcher’s shop you will find a considerable variety of ready-to-cook Svizzere, including moderately fatty beef, lean beef, beef with pork, beef with turkey, beef with chicken, and many Svizzere with different kinds of herbs and flavorings mixed through the meat.”

Further down in this post, he provides a link for the recipe of a Svizzera with spinach – the first time I see the marrying of meat and spinach in one fell swoop.  Sadly, Kyle Phillips is no longer with us and I cannot consult him as to how we came to have a dish called “spinacina” in the single, and “spinacine” in the plural.   As you might have guessed even though you may not speak Italian, the word ‘spinacine’ is based on the Italian word for spinach.  A spinacina is a patty made up of minced/ground chicken (or chicken and turkey) to which spinach is added.

I reckon that Popeye has something to do with this. We have all grown up thinking that spinach is good for us, and contains a lot of iron.  It is just part of our culture.  But – and there is the rub – how do  you get people to eat more spinach, especially if they don’t like it?

Thus, I also reckon that some adult wanted to entice a child to eat more spinach and that an obliging butcher invented this dish in order to come to the aid of an exasperated mother who couldn’t get her child to eat greens.

Last, I reckon that  an Italian industrial ready-to-cook meat producing company (Aia) launched them country-wide in 1990 in order to a) help  busy or time-strapped mothers prepare a quick, child-friendly dinner and b) reassure said mother that the child would also be ‘forced’ to eat some healthy spinach thereby.  I suppose the idea behind the spinacina is that this patty is so delicious, the kid will love it even if it doesn’t like spinach.

I went through a phase myself where I thought it normal to buy ready-to-cook or frozen foods for my young children: chicken cordon bleu, fish fingers, or frozen crispy pancakes (called ‘sofficini’ in Italian) but I don’t remember ever buying these spinacini.  I did, once, go to the bother of making a chicken cordon bleu at home for the sake of my favourite son, now grown up (https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2014/10/25/thoreau-and-a-chicken-cordon-bleu/) and so when I came across a recipe for making spinacine the other day, I thought to myself: well why not? what it boils down to, basically, is chicken and spinach polpette. And my favourite daughter, who loves spinach, is bound to like ’em.

What I can say, having tasted one, is that they are definitely worth the effort and not hard to make at all.  The ones I made were fried in plenty of very hot vegetable oil and I know a lot of people hate to fry.  The alternative is to place the spinacine on a well-oiled sheet of parchment paper and cook them in the oven.  If they turn out a bit dry, you can always serve them with some kind of sauce or …. ssssh … ketchup.

Have a go!

Ingredients: 400g minced/ground chicken (I used chicken thighs and got my butcher to mince the meat for me); 150g fresh spinach leaves; 40-60g grated parmesan: 1 egg for the mix and 2 eggs for the eggwash; 2 serving spoons of Italian breadcrumbs (otherwise use panko) plus more for breading; salt and pepper, some freshly grated nutmeg.  Oil for frying: I used groundnut/peanut oil which has an excellent smoke point.

This will be enough to serve six moderately hungry people and four rather hungry ones.

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Do not wilt the spinach, no need.  But do wash it, naturally, and pat dry.

5Place the spinach on the bottom of the food processor.  Sprinkle salt and pepper and the nutmeg.

6Then add one egg and the parmesan.

7And finally the breadcrumbs and the chicken.

8Pulse the ingredients until you get the texture you prefer and everything is well combined.

9Here is one huge spinach and chicken polpetta !  So the thing to do is divide it into six parts.

10Cut it in half and then cut each half into three parts and roll them into polpette – six polpette in all.

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Once you have the six polpette, flatten them into an oblong shape with rounded edges.

12It’s actually quite fun, moulding these spinacine.

13They should be about 1.5cm thick … i.e. not too thick otherwise they won’t cook properly in the middle, and you don’t want to eat raw chicken.

Time to bread the spinacine.

14Two beaten eggs in one bowl, and the breadcrumbs in the other.

15Dip the spinacina into the eggwash first …

16And then bread it.  Press firmly.

17At this point, if you wanted, you could freeze the spinacine, to eat on another day.

19Instead, I put them in the fridge for half an hour, so that they would firm up a bit.

Time to fry the spinacine.

20Heat the oil in a large and deep enough frying pan.

21Get yourself ready.  Have a plate with  plenty of kitchen paper on it nearby.

22Use a slotted spoon.

23Use the slotted spoon to slide the spinacine into the hot oil.

24Let the spinacine cook on one side for about two minutes.

25Then, because they are quite ‘heavy’, use two spoons or two forks to turn the spinacine over on the other side.

26See how nice and golden the already fried side is.  Cook the other side for less time – about one minute will do.  Use the slotted spoon, again, to transfer the cooked spinacine to the plate.

27Here they are … resting on the kitchen paper, any excess oil being absorbed by it.

28But to be honest, they really weren’t greasy at all.  And that is because I followed the golden rules of frying: the oil must be at least two inches deep, or deep enough for the food to ‘swim’ in it, and the oil must be hot enough when you put the food into it.  If you haven’t got a thermometer, and I don’t often bother with one, you can know that the oil is hot enough if, when you put the thin end of a wooden spoon inside the frying pan, the oil ‘bubbles’ cheerfully around it.  Last, do not cook all at once.  Every time you lower food into the frying pan, the temperature naturally goes down – so fry the foods a little at a time.

29I had spinach leftover which I wilted.  I put it on the plate, cold and pressed, together with some nice tomatoes and some mozzarella.  Seasoned with olive oil and salt.

30It was a very nice combination. I sprinkled some salt over the spinacina and a few drops of lemon juice too.

31I cut the spinacina in half to show you what it looks like inside.

Anyway, just for the record, favourite daughter happened to be home and had these for dinner last night and pronounced them very good.  She took the remaining two to work with her today.

P.S. The recipe I read called for 40g grated parmesan.  I think that a wee big more is advisable, which is why under ‘ingredients’ I wrote: 40-60g grated parmesan.

 

Risotto with Leftover Coda alla Vaccinara Sauce

I don’t normally have any leftover sauce when I make Coda alla Vaccinara … it all gets mopped up with hefty doses of good bread.

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This time, however, I had decided to use the extra sauce to make a different kind of supplì, the rice croquet that is breaded and deep fried, and is usually eaten as an antipasto or as street food.

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Well, my intentions were good but sometimes the body baulks at too much effort on a Sunday …and the end result was, instead, a risotto.  Nothing to be ashamed, of by all means … Take a look.

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Start by heating up the sauce …

IMG_3265.JPGWhile it is heating up, toast the rice.  This is carnaroli rice but you could use arborio if you prefer, or even vialone nano.  Vialone nano would not work for a supplì …but I wasn’t making supplì, now, was I?  Also … ssssh … big secret … big new tip … well, at least new to me: apparently the rice can be toasted in the pan without any oil or butter whatsoever ! Here is a link to more risotto-making tips: https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2013/09/28/hands-on-hips-over-risotto-making-and-seeing-the-light-with-a-leftovers-risotto/

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I added the first ladle of the sauce, and it sizzled fiercely and I had to step away – so watch out if you intend to repeat this recipe.  I stirred the rice for a few seconds and then quickly added another couple of ladles and carried on as I would with any other risotto.  I had to remove some of the celery leaves, however, because they just kept ‘getting in the way’ of the stirring.  No matter.

IMG_3267.JPGOnce the rise was cooked, I added a knob of butter and plenty of grated pecorino romano cheese. As you can see, hardly any celery leaves left in the risotto.  Less worry over them sticking to our teeth in a most unsightly way.IMG_3268.JPGI then put the risotto inside a pyrex dish.

IMG_3269We were going to a friend’s house for a celebratory aperitivo dinner … and this dish came in very handy and was duly appreciated, served just warm from the oven.

Sometimes it pays to be ‘lazy’ ! And it’s good to know that one can continue Loving the Leftovers !

Consumer Friendly Consommé

Clear soup, that’s what we are talking about.  Something frightfully old fashioned.  I have only heard about it in books or films or TV series like Poirot or other Agatha Christie storylines.  I thought I’d give it a go.

Ingredients for my easy version:

500 finely minced/ground beef (a cheap cut), 1 carrot, 1 onion, 1 celery stick, a few cloves, 1 bayleaf, 1 egg white.

Place all the ingredients in your pot and add cold water – about 1 litre or just over depending on how ‘strong’ you want it.

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You can just about make out the bayleaf up at the top there.4This is the egg yolk that gets left behind; do NOT put it in the stock.  The egg white serves to ‘clarify’ the soup.

5This is a photo to show the egg yolk in the soupd but it’s not very easy to spot.  What I have spotted, instead, is a celery leaf – and that is a major no-no when making stock/broth.  Rule of thumb says no leaves except bay leaf.  Now that I am writing this post, I remember what happened.  I didn’t have any celery in the fridge and these measely leaves were all I had.

Add salt.

6Use a whisk or other utensil to shake things up a bit, to unloosen the minced beef.

7Turn the heat on and give it a good stir.  And I mean stir! Stir energetically for a few seconds.

Then, let it be, let it simmer over a very low heat for about 40 minutes.

8And this is what it looks like.  See how ‘clear’ the stock is?

9Drain the soup-making elements.  I would love to say one could make something of the meat that is left behind … but basically all the taste has been boiled out of it.  So … be kind and give it your dog.

10And now you are ready to serve.  Taste it first, in case it needs more salt.

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12Who says old-fashioned can’t be exquisite?  Please note: consommé is to be drunk straight out of its cup, no spoon soup to be used.

Try drinking a glass of sherry with this, and proceed with wine for the rest of the meal.

P.S.  I actually did not serve the consommé straight away.  I let the consommé cool down and refrigerated to use the next day.  When it came out of the fridge it was a bit like jelly.  Nor was the liquid clear any longer  – and I was mortified.

No worries:  Once the consommé got heated up again, it regained its former glory in look and feel and tasted delicious.

Swordfish with a Pecorino Imbued Sauce

Anyone who has lived in Italy for any length of time, or even visited it for a brief spell with a gastronomic field trip in mind, will come to know that fish and cheese are not bed mates in this country.  Horror of horrors to any law abiding Italian is – perish the thought – the addition of parmesan or other cheese to any pasta dish featuring a creature of the deep or even surface seawater.  The only exception I am aware of is pasta using mussels and pecorino.

And then, out of the blue, my English friend Michelle Smith who has lived here for over 35 years tells me that one of her favourite seafood pasta dishes involves swordfish and pecorino.  Well, you could have knocked me down with a feather.  “Doesn’t the pecorino overwhelm the swordfish?”, I enquire with eyebrow raised and lips pursed to one side of my mouth in disbelief.  She assures me that it does not though of course one mustn’t overdo it with the grated pecorino.  Hmmm.

The thing is … my family are not great lovers of swordfish.  The last time I even ate swordfish was in Sicilly, during a memorable holiday in July of 2014.  We had lunch at the family restaurant on the water which is featured in so many Inspector Montalbano TV series, called “Enzo a Mare” (https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2014/08/02/montalbano-land-and-enzo-a-mare/).

And then Friday afternoon (Tuesdays and Fridays are the traditional days for eating fish in Italy) I decided we simply had to have some fresh fish for dinner.  So off I trotted to Monteporzio Catone, a little town up the hill from Frascati, where I know I can find a very good fishmonger open in the afternoon.

The first thing I espy are oysters, French ones at that, and so I make my mind up on the spot that I shall need a few of those just to get me going on the supper.

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I look around and decide that, though I may not marry pasta with it, it’s about high time I had a go at swordfish and pecorino.  And while we’re at it, why not get some juicy anchovies to fry, dusted with flour?

And this is my bounty once I got home (aside from the oysters above):

5A big fat thick slice of swordfish, some gutted anchovies and a lovely bunch of saltwort – barba di frati or agretti, as they are called in Italian.

5aThe agretti are blanched in salted water, draind and set aside.

7The anchovies are thoroughly dusted with flour.

6They are then deep fried in groundnut (peanut) oil at the appointed time.

 

I also found some lovely asparagus, which I trimmed and washed and then sliced into two or three constituent parts.  I proceeded to simmer them in salted water for a minimum time, drain them and quickly plunge them into cold water to stop the cooking process.

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I know that I shall have need of both lemon, oranges and parsely.  The lemon was from the Costiera amalfitana and the orange from Sicily.  What a lucky girl I am indeed.

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Once the asparagus had cooled down, I placed them around the edge of a large platter.  And added some orange slices in the middle.

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And now it was time for a bit of cheesy alchemy.  Olive oil, lemon juice, chopped parsely, grated pecorino romano cheese … and a squeeze of orange juice. And a squeeze of lemon juice.

9Process all the ingredients.  Taste … and add a bit of water, a bit of salt.

10The final flourish is the glug of olive oil (evoo naturally).  Stir and stir, taste and taste, add a bit of this, add a bit of that … and Bob’s your uncle.  This is definitely not the typical Sicilian salmoriglio sauce but … even so … most adequate.  The pecorino is hardly detectable as an individual ‘cheese’ component, and yet imparts some sense of oily gluttony that is just the business for this sauce.

11Pat the swordfish steak until it is dry on both sides, using kitchen paper.

Time to get dinner on the table!

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Plenty of olive oil and plenty of dried oregano (I don’t have fresh at this time of year, sorry).

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Once the heat has got going, add the steak and cook on one side over a fairly high heat.  For .. sorry, I can’t remember how long.  But not too long … maybe three minutes? Enjoy the sizzling sound.

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And then turn it over.  And let it cook on the other side until the pink in the middle of the steak goes a pale white.  Another three minutes?  Whatever.  I don’t like raw fish unless I am eating sushi or ‘crudo’ or ceviche but I do know that swordfish must not be overcooked either. Sprinkle a little salt at this stage.

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Once I think it is done … I cut the steak in half.  Half for me and half for my favourite husband.

16Plonk the halved steak on the seving dish, over the slices of orange and surrounded by blanched asparagus.

17Serve on the individual plate.

18Pour the green sauce.

Enjoy.

It was lovely.  Not overpowering, and the tang of the orange and lemon making it very fresh.  And the ‘secret’, very discreet, ingredient, the grated pecorino, contributing that sense of fatty satisfaction that can only delight a palate.  I was lucky, I had intuited how much pecorino to mix into the sauce.  Any more and it would have been too much.

 

Basic Cooking Class Italian Style – A Bit of Boot Camp Never Hurt

Kindness is timeless.

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You know the cooking experience is going to go well when you are offered a beautiful orchid plant even before starting the lesson!  The story may be apocryphal but I had read that in China it was customary for an audience to clap before the show took place, maybe to clear the air of any unwanted negative energy or, on the contrary, to imbue the air with positive vibrations emanating from the clapping itself.  I was just so touched by the attitude of gratitude that my two fellow kitchen ‘combatants’ showed me with their floral offering and their smiles.

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The venue was the home of Victoria Bonadonna and her very generous and thoroughly organized kitchen space.

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I don’t like the kitchen spaces used for formal cookery lessons; highly technical, ergonomic and hygienic in the extreme, and thus practical for understandably obvious reasons, they lack any ‘real home’ element to them – it’s like being in a gymn as opposed to walking in a park or swimming in the sea. Victoria’s is no huge kitchen and is proof that size does not matter immeasurably when it comes to putting good food on the table.  Victoria does, however, boast many and necessary accoutrements for making the cooking process a smooth one, the helpful kitchen gadgets or ‘toys’ as I call them:  precision electronic scales, knives, immersion blender, electric whisk/beater and plenty of pots and pans of all sizes.  Victoria has plenty more kitchen trinkets but these are the ones that really matter. Oh, and scissors ! Scissors can save the day.

And Victoria is, and very much so, organised.  I think that that is one of the ‘ingredients’ that doesn’t get enuogh mention when it comes to realistic, do-able, enjoyable cooking. Mental clarity and organization are everything.  So it is better to start learning a few simple techniques and tips first and play around with those until they are under your belt, and then brave recipes that require a lot more skill.  And this is precisely why I love Italian cookery: the techniques are so easy, anyone can learn them.  Good meals can be prepared in very little time.  Since time management, as we know, is something of a challenge for so many of us, this is an immense boon.

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Victoria is the mother of two and an accomplished home cook.  Moreover, she can bake whereas I do so with hesitant trepidation.  And she can barbecue too – which I cannot because we live in an apartment and don’t have a garden.  Victoria is privy to an award-winning barbecue recipe that her cousin in Missouri shared with her; she gave me some tips for spare ribs that I then made for my nephew who loves them and, though roasted in an oven as opposed to a proper barbecue, boy!  Boy were they good!.

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Victoria’s lifestyle is typical of many women raising kids: an early wake-up, breakfast for the kids, drive them to two different schools, pick them up at lunch time (in Italy school kids finish their day at around 1 o’clock after a certain age), make them lunch, make sure they get started on their homework, take them to various sports or activities in the afternoon, and then – of course- make them dinner.  In other words, she is busy.  Busy all day.  In and out of the car at regular daily intervals.  Oh and did I mention that she runs the Culture Club of the Castelli as well as the Castelli Welcome Neighbour Association?

Christine (below) is a mother to be and about to return to her native Napa after spending nearly two years in Italy on account of her husband’s work.  She likes to cook too and was keen to learn more about a few simple, easy to make Italian recipes, for weekday meals.  So Victoria and I conspired to organize an Italian Bootcamp Cooking Basics for her day before yesterday.  The appointed time was 10 a.m. and it had to be over by 4 p.m.  I did most of the shopping the day before but bought some fresh vegetables first thing in that morning.

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Here we are, the car unloaded and we are about to begin.

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Below is the list of what we prepared together. At the end of this post, I put up some links to most of the recipes we cooked that I have blogged about.

LIST OF RECIPES

(1) Chicken stock – which we used to make (2 ) Chicken Corn soup (admittedly not an Italian recipe) and (3) Egg Drop Soup (stracciatella).  We also made (4) Salad soup.

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(5) We prepared the easiest of tomato sauces – Marcella Hazan’s tomato sauce using just a can of plum tomatoes, an onion and plenty of butter.  We used this sauce to make (6) riso al pomodoro (rice in tomato sauce) and to cook (7) meatballs in what was left of it.  It would make a delicious sauce for pasta too (8), all one would need is add some freshly grated parmesan.  So just think about this: one tomato sauce and three recipes as a result!

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We prepared previously cooked, shop bought (9) borlotti beans with the rind of pancetta and some tomato paste squeezed out of a tube (we had used the pancetta for the salad soup).  We made (10) pasta e ceci (pasta and chickpea/garbanzo thick soup).  Using my special quick-and-easy technique, one could also make pasta e fagioli, pasta with beans soup, it would be the same procedure.

Pasta dishes:  (11) pasta with broccoli and sausage and (12) spaghetti with garlic, oil and chilli flakes.

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The broccoli and sausage pasta (11) is on the upper left of this photo, next to the carrots.

We  made (13) polpette – meatballs – from scratch and cooked them in the tomato sauce with the addition of peas.  We used thinly sliced chicken breasts to make (14) chicken with ginger (my own recipe) and (15) chicken with oranges.

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We blanched spinach to make (16) spinaci alla romana.  We cooked (17) broccoletti in the oven with olive oil, lemon zest and a dusting of parmiggiano  (parmesan).  We made (18) mashed potatoes the Italian way (with the addition of parmesan and nutmeg).  We also made (19) a pepper stew – peperonata – even though this is not the best seasons for capsicum.  We also sliced some carrots (20) and cooked them down with butter and water.

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We made a very unscientific batter (21) and fried (22) artichokes and (23) courgette/zucchini flowers.

And this marked the end of the savoury dishes.

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Last we made a (24) jam tart (crostata) with wild cherry jam.  When I say ‘we’, I actually made Victoria make it – I know she likes getting her fingers stuck in the job when it comes to baking.   Thank goodness for a stand mixer … I was giving her instructions all backwards, and told her to put the flour in first, instead of the butter.  Ah well, kitchen catastrophes do take place and we have to understand that that is ‘normal’ too, and that we have to find remedies for them.  A good sense of humour and a glass of wine can be very helpful.

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The sour cherry crostata, just out of the oven.

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Victoria, on the left, is holding the crema pasticcera (baker’s custard).

So … all in all …. 25 recipes.  Not bad.  And every single one very easy to make and execute (except for the frying maybe). The whole experience was coloured by banter, joking, exchanging stories and all those conversations that are so good for bonding.  When I got home, a little on the exhausted side physically, but ‘high’ emotionally, I came across an article which just spoke out to me, as if  to pat me on the back as it were – me and all the wonderful ‘ordinary’ people people, not celebrity chefs or ‘slebs’ as Gareth Jones used to call them, ordinary people both male and female, young and old, who understand that cooking is NOT, or at least need not be, a chore.  It  was an interview with  Jules Blaine Davis in which she mentions how her mother admonished her  for relying on take-away/take-out foods so heavily.  Her mother told her in no uncertain terms:

“We need to make the kitchen a place where you can BE, not a place where there are things you have to DO.”

Well … thank you Christine and Victoria.  We certainly did a lot of both ‘doing’ and ‘being’.

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If you are interested in trying some of the recipes above, for which I have written a blog post, you will find the links below.

Recipe for a mixed meat stock/broth: https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2011/11/18/taking-stock-over-making-stock-olivers-brodo/

Lettuce soup: https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2012/02/29/soup-series-salad-soup/

Pasta e ceci soup: https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2011/02/24/pasta-e-ceci/

Pasta e fagioli soup: https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2013/11/14/good-golly-pasta-e-fagioli/

Spaghetti with garlic, oil, chilli, pecorino and mint: https://frascaticookingthatsamore.wordpress.com/2015/08/29/dracula-style-spaghetti-with-garlic-mint-and-pecorino/

Pasta with broccoli and anchovy and pecorino sauce: https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2012/11/13/green-technique-and-sicilian-broccoli-pasta/

Pasta with broccoli and sausage: https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2014/11/25/pasta-with-broccoli-and-sausage-pasta-broccoli-e-salsiccia/

Chicken with orange: https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2010/12/19/the-doleful-door-stop/

Meatballs with peas in a tomato sauce: https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2015/02/01/meatballs-with-peas-polpette-con-piselli/

Mashed potatoes the Italian way: https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2013/02/25/the-comfort-of-a-spud-il-pure-di-patate-mashed-potatoes-italian-style/

Spinaci alla romana (they are mentioned towards the end of the post): https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2014/02/13/going-tuscan-for-st-valentines-peposo-cannellini-and-spinach/

Batter for frying: the ‘unscientific’ recipe we used in our cooking class was the following: 2 serving spoons of ordinary flour plus one of corn starch; repeat until you think you have the desired amount (we did it 4 times).  Add one egg.  Add one spoon of vodka or grappa.  Add one tablespoon of olive oil.  Allow to rest for at least 20 minutes in the fridge. The following link is another way to make batter: https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2012/09/09/my-favourite-batter-for-courgette-blossoms/

Recipe for crostata pastry (pie crust): 300g sifted flour, pinch of salt, 3 egg yolks, 1 whole egg, 150g sugar, 150g butter at room temperature, finely grated lemon zest.

Baker’s custard (crema pasticcera) https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2011/05/15/bakers-custard-crema-pasticcera/

And the flowers are just so beautiful.  Again, thank you.

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Catastrophic Artichoke Patties

In which a disgruntled hero tackles a disappointing result hands on hips.

Well, the hero (or heroine rather) would be me, and the adventure a culinary one from which even Aesops might draw a moral.  It all began with my being attracted to a recipe for cooking artichokes in a way completely different from my usual Roman trope (alla romana, alla giudia or even fried in batter).  Indeed, the recipe hails from Lombardy and the hint of mint made my nostrils flare with anticipation: parmesan, breadcrumbs and mint – what’s not to like? To be baked in the oven as opposed to the stove top – curioser and curioser.  So, nothing loath, off I trotted to buy the carciofi, the artichokes.

Ingredients for the disaster Baked Artichokes

The original recipe called for six artichokes but because there were going to be only two of us for dinner I halved the amounts.  Thus: 3 artichokes, 40g grated parmesan, 25g breadcrumbs, fresh mint leaves, 2 tablespoons olive oil.

Usually I comment the photos I take, one by one.  This time I won’t reference throughout because the procedure is quite obvious.

The artichokes need to be trimmed and their tough outer layers of leaves be unsparingly removed (show no mercy).  Simmer the artichokes whole in boiling salted water for 15 minutes, drain and place in cold water until they cool down.

Put the stuffing together (breadcrumbs, grated parmesan, minced mint leaves, and olive oil).

 

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Stuff the artichokes, sprinkle salt, dribble olive oil and place head down in a pyrex dish, with each head of artichoke covering a whole mint leaf.

Put the dish in a preheated oven (150°) for around 40 minutes.

Remove from the oven … and this is when I am supposed to say, “And Enjoy”.

Oh woe is me.  I cannot. This was the first time ever my favourite husband disappoved of something I had cooked; he nodded his head disapprovingly from side to side and confessed that, “No … they just aren’t good.  I can’t eat them.  Sorry.”

They were … haaard.  Woody.  Woody and weird.  Unappealing in the extreme.  I tried two bites and then gave in myself too.

And I was angry.  I hate it when a recipe fails to satisfy.  In this I am very much like Richmal Crompton’s character William Brown, from her  Just William book series.  I expect readers much younger than I will have never heard of them and you don’t know what you you are missing  – I think people suffering from depression should be made to read them as part of their recovery programme (here is a link to an episode from the TV series: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TycXDEZdqgo – and here is another one, from a previous series:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vEVm4MuB9_c  ) but the original books are bound to be better).   Anyway, in one of the stories, I’m afraid I can’t remember the title, William is spurred to break apart a grandfather clock, following the instructions from a Do-it-yourself book on how to recreate something or other.  When he attempts to put the clock back together again, and is unable to, he blames the book.  “You’d think the book would know what it’s talking about!” he complains bitterly, feeling quite betrayed, and amazed that his parents should get cross with him for his misdemeanour.  And that’s a little how I felt about that artichoke recipe.  And so, just before falling asleep that night, I vowed that I’d teach those artichokes a lesson or two, huh.  Scroll down and you will find out how I salvaged the situation.

Ingredients for the Salvation Artichoke Patties: diced chunks of mozzarella, 1 egg, breadcrumbs, groundnut oil or olive oil for frying

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This is what I started off with.  Basically, two cooked artichokes.

19I placed them in the processor and turned them to a pulp.

I cut up a mozzeralla into small chunks.  And I rolled the pulp into ball shapes.

22I flattened the balls and placed some mozzarella over each one.

23I rolled them back into a ball again.  So, in other words, each ball was stuffed with some mozzarella.

24I beat one egg and coated the artichoke balls with it.

2526I then coated the balls with breadcrumbs.

27And I fried them in batches in very hot oil for a very short time (they were already cooked after all) – just until they turned golden.

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Here is one of them, cut in half … the molten mozzarella looking like the telephine line of a supplì !

And this time, they WERE good, phew.  Not sure I’d make them again but at least I managed to salvage the situation and make something good of a kitchen catastrophe.

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Three left over the next morning.  Good even at room temperature.

So: three cheers and hurrah for luscious leftovers and delicious fried artichoke patties. The fried food fanatic (FFF) did it again, yeay!

PS St Lawrence is the patron saint of cooks.  Does anyone know if there is a patron saint for fried foods?