Dracula-Style Spaghetti with Garlic, Mint and Pecorino

The reference to Dracula in the title is all about the garlic.  As we all know, Dracula was a vampire, and vampires are fearful of garlic.  This post is very garlic-centric … so if you are not interested in the background stuff, please scroll down and go straight to the recipe with the photos.  Guaranteed to keep vampires at bay …

Many visitors to Italy have confided to me that they are baffled by the Italians’ hesitant,  wary and sometimes even snooty attitude towards this most necessary of recipe enhancers; they can’t fail to notice how niggardly most Italians are with the amount of cloves included in any dish,  or even how the garlic is removed altogether once it has been sautéed in olive oil towards the start of the recipe in question.

I personally hail from a family of garlic-galore inclination but this was eventually ironed out of me, gastronomically speaking, when first I began to cook regularly and enjoyed inviting people to dinner.  The most diplomatic among them would say something like, “Wow Jo! just how much garlic did you put in this dish!” and reach for litres of water or wine to tame the lusty lingering flavour on their palate.  I was rather mortified, naturally, but, nothing loath, forged ahead with my experiments in the kitchen, toning down the amount of garlic until I got it to  be ‘Italian-friendly’.   I had a colleague at work at the time who was very fond of me and would too often come within unwelcome exhaling distance,  her affection imbued with an overpowering halitosic souvenir of the garlic she had eaten the night  before – so it wasn’t as if I were not sensitive to the whole ‘garlic breath’ scenario.  She happened to be French.  Another German colleague was even more liberal with his daily garlic intake and literally ‘infested’ the lift.  One always knew when he had used the lift, his body left a garlicky smell-imprint leaving us in no doubt.  These days,  it would be the Romanians recently living in Italy who are likely to cause nostril-attack for the the whiff of garlic surrounding their person.  So yes, the Italians are finicky about garlic.

I have an inkling, moreover, that the Italians have always been pernickety about their garlic intake – the middle class, bourgeois or aristocratic Italians that is and in this respect they would have been no different from other toffs in other countries.  The poorer people couldn’t get enough of garlic and onions in their diet and their body odour was olfactive proof of this.  So the smell of garlic was most likely associated with peasant fare, with poverty.

We know, on the other hand, that garlic was not a ‘normal’ ingredient in the British kitchen until Elisabeth David’s popular books introduced Mediterranean flavours and recipes in the 1950s to a country that had previously been highly diffident of this Allium sativum, perhaps even deeming it exotic, not to mention suspiciously ‘foreign’.  Once the trend for garlic had set it, however, there was no stopping the garlic frenzy and the more-the-merrier became the mantra.

Not so with the prescriptive Italians, with their long history of local cuisine, which they are now appreciating more and more and looking to as a treasured heirloom: they are fully aware that garlic has its place in the kitchen, but it is one that has to be included with sedulous calibration.  You can’t just breezily throw in cloves of garlic any old how à la Jamie Oliver! no! you have to know just how many cloves, and you have to cook the garlic properly, making sure it doesn’t change colour beyond golden! Watching Italian cooking programmes on TV, reading Italian cookery books or magazines, and listening to pronouncements made by chefs at cooking classes, I was unanimously informed that garlic is ‘sweet’ if cooked over a low heat, and for a short time, and that once it has imparted its fabulous flavour, it should be deftly and cold-bloodedly removed upon pain of it then wreaking revenge upon the recipe, by turning it bitter and ruining everything.   Also, most chefs actually remove the sprout/germ from the garlic altogether.  It is ironic that this germ is sometimes referred to as the ‘anima’, the soul, in Italian.

I am always on the look-out for good quality when it comes to food, and that of course includes garlic.  For years now, I have been boycotting supermarkets as much as I can in any case for general reasons of business ethics but, when it comes to garlic, because of the supermarkets’ partiality to plugging garlic imported from China, India, Egypt and Spain.  Nothing against these countries but I can’t for the life of me understand why Italy needs to import garlic in the first place.  Second, Italian garlic tastes so much better – sorry, I do not want to offend anyone’s sensibilities,  but it does!  You need only one Italian clove for the equivalent of at least two or more as regards varieties from other countries.  (And ssssh, don’t tell the customs officers, but I have been known to smuggle in Italian garlic to other countries when I visit and my friends and family are glad that I did.)  The Italian garlic I use most of all (in that I have access to it) is the garlic from Sulmona in the Abbruzzo in Central Italy.  Other famous garlics in Italy hail from Vessalico (Liguria), Voghiera (near Ferrara), Polesano (from Polesine in the Veneto), Aglio bianco di Molino dei Torti (near Alessandria in Piedmont). These are all regions in the north of Italy.  The only famous garlic from the South would seem to be the Aglio rosso di Nubia di Paceco (close to Trapani in Sicily) but I have a feeling that more varieties exist in the South and just aren’t talked about.

Some people claim they find garlic undigestible – and who am I to disbelieve them?  Everyone knows the workings of their own body.  So … if you fall into the category of people who do indeed like their garlic but have to be careful not to be overpowered by it in their meals, you might like to discover the following tip.

Place the peeled garlic in a small pan with cold water.  Bring the water to the boil, or just before rather.  When the water bubbles about to simmer appear, drain the cloves.  Put them back in the pan, add more cold water and repeat the procedure.  Do it a third time.  This can even be done using milk.  What these three immersions in water do is make the garlic ‘milder’ without actually removing any of its taste.

I tried it.  It worked.  And here is a recipe for spaghetti.

1Actually, first of all put the water on to boil.  Then grate the pecorino romano cheese.  I say ‘first of all’ because grating cheese is something I do not like doing, and so I either get somebody else to do it for me … or get it over and done with first myself so that I can breathe better.2 Chop a mixture of parsely and mint.  Or parsely only.  Or mint only.  Whatever you prefer.  I don’t think basil would work in this recipe, however.3 If you like heat, chop up some chilli or use chilli flakes.4 Chop up a couple of tomatoes and remove as much of the pulp and seeds as you are in the mood to do.5 Place the cloves of garlic in cold water.  One clove per 100g of spaghetti and one more for the pot, the way one puts in 1 spoonful of tea leaves per cup and one more for the teapot.6 Turn on the heat.  When tiny bubbles of simmer rise to the surface, immediately drain the garlic.7 Put the garlic back in the pan, add water and repeat the procedure.  Repeat the whole procedure once more.  Then slice the garlic into fairly thin slithers.  Thin slithers are required for this recipe.8 Pour the best quality olive oil you have into a saucepan.9 Add the garlic and only now turn on the heat.  Low.  Low heat.  We want the oil to be infused with the flavour of the garlic. The longer the garlic takes to cook the better.  Keep a beady eye on the saucepan at this point ! blink and you’ll have missed the second the garlic went from golden to burnt! And then it will be too late … and it will be a case of Oh Woe is Me! Garlic disaster.10 When the garlic has reached its golden colour stage, add the chopped tomatoes.  And the chilli too, if you like it.11And now and only now can you turn the heat up a little, and get the tomatoes to cook.  A couple of minutes will do it.  The sauce is ready. Switch off the heat. Taste and add some salt if necessary.12 Drain the spaghetti directly into the sauce and the saucepan.  Mix well so that the pasta is coated all over.    Add the herbs last.13

Add the pecorino and eat to your heart’s content.  I like mine quite fiery so added more chilli flakes.

My husband and I ate these spaghetti very late in the evening, after we had come back from a day at the beach in Sabaudia.  To put it mildly, we were starving.  It took me literally 20 minutes from start to finish.  We ended up eating amounts that would be frowned upon in the course of a normal Italian meal, but thoroughly approved of when pasta is the only food for dinner.  In other words, we also ingested a lot of garlic.  And yes … lo and behold … no ‘heaviness’, no indigestion, no garlicky breath the following day.

Thumbs up !

 

Easy Peasy Pollo con i Peperoni – Chicken and Pepper/Capsicum Stew

Of course, if the idea of cooking is not an appealing one for you, the ‘easiest’ fallback recipe is when someone else cooks for you … but needs must on occasion that even the most reluctant cook has to rustle up something for the evening meal and I am sure that a recipe such as this one would offer a modicum of consolation.  Another boon is that it is best eaten on the following day – at roome temperature at that, hence, drum roll, it can be prepared with utmost calm with music playing in the background and a steady heart beat.  It is a typically Roman summer dish and reminds me, don’t ask me why, of the the dinner we had with my cousin Teresa the night before she delivered her baby boy.  And yes, it was in July twenty plus years ago.

Her husband Mimmo is a retired cook and we spent a few weeks together in July this year near the seaside town of Sabaudia.  Here they are, leaving the beach hut on the motocycle.

zmotorbike

Teresa and Mimmo love their food and wine just as much as we do, and I have to say that I would never be able to spend too long a time with anyone who didn’t.  This said, Mimmo tends to go AWOL in the kitchen when on holiday and likes to cook as little as possible, and as simply as possible (although he did spend quite a few mornings making jam, using the delicious ripe fruit we found locally chez Luciana’s).  The other factor was that this, the summer of 2015, has been an infernally hot one, hot and sticky … and naturally perspiring over a hot stove wasn’t going to be too appealing for anyone.  People thought I was mad when I insisted on frying fiori di zucca (mozzarella stuffed courgette/zucchini blossoms) but then, I am a fried-food-fanatic and they are such a crowd pleaser.  For the rest, salads and charcuterie and mozzarella loomed large on our dinner table.  The only dish that was worth cooking on a daily basis was pasta  – and yes, we are Italian and that’s what we do, eat pasta even when the temperatures soar.

Anyway, I apologise for this detail in chronicling but the point I am about to make is an important one: Mimmo is a professional chef, number one, number two, he wanted to cook something most delicious with the minimum of fuss and effort.  He made the pollo con peperoni for us one evening and it was delicious, really really delicious.  So I asked him how he made it.  And here is what I remember of what he told me.  So i think we should call this Pollo con i Peperoni alla Mimmo.

1 Here is chopped chicken, with the skin on.2 The chicken will cook in a saucepan/skillet with some evoo and some garlic cut into very thin slices.  So thin that they will ‘melt’ into the sauce later on.3 Here are some red peppers/capsicum that have been sliced and trimmed of any ‘white’ linings they might have had on the inside.4 The red peppers are going to be stewed in a saucepan with some onion and some evoo.  If you have red onion, even better.  Sprinkle a little sugar over the onions.5 Can you see? Two saucepans, one with garlic on the left for the chicken and one with onion on the right for the peppers.6Turn the heat on.
7 Turn the heat on.  Sprinkle some salt over the peppers.8 When the chicken has almost cooked, say about 20 minutes later (this will depend on how much chicken you are cooking at any one time) …9 Find the tastiest tomatoes you can get hold of and dice them up.10 Add them to the chicken, sprinkle salt over the tomatoes, and carry on cooking until the tomatoes turn into a sauce.11 The peppers are cooked (almost tender).12 The chicken too has cooked.  Now it’s time to put the two together.13 Cook them over a medium-high heat for about five minutes giving them a chance to really come together in gastronomic matrimony.14 15 When the pollo con i peperoni has cooled down, you can transfer it to a glass container and stick it in the fridge, to be eaten the following day.16 Or even the same day, a few hours later on.   Make sure, in either case, that the dish is served at room temperature.  So remove from the fridge well ahead of the meal (2 hours at least).17 I stuck this huge sprig of basil in the middle of the dish and it looks silly …but it’s to give you the sense that you can add a little bit of basil, now, or even some finely chopped parsely.18Also, it’s very important to have plenty of crusty bread to mop up the plate at the end.  The sauce is very more-ish.

It was lovely for us to be able to get our fruit and veg from Luciana, whose farm is in Bella Farnia near Sabaudia and is open every day at all times of the day!

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Curbing the Courgette – La Concia di Zucchine

This is a great recipe for those of us who like to rely on make-ahead meals on occasion – you know, cook the day before so that it’s ready the day after. Indeed, since this is a traditional Roman Jewish dish, it was probably designed specifically for this reason, to avoid having to cook on the Sabbath. The Italian word ‘conciare’ itself means to treat a substance so that it will keep better and longer (i.e. to preserve, to pickle or to tan a hide), and there is even a cheese called Conciato Romano.  Thus I can only presume that ‘conciare’, when it comes to food, is basically about technique.  The technique in question calls for frying the food first and then adding vinegar to preserve it.  In the days before refrigeration, salt and vinegar were vital for making food last longer.
The ingredients are: courgettes/zucchine, olive oil, garlic, vinegar, salt and fresh mint leaves and/or parsely.

After washing and trimming the courgette, cut it into fairly thick rounds.  I have seen on other recipe blogs that the courgette can also  be cut in lengths or diagonally even.  You choose.  Some recipes call for salting the courgette for about an hour, so as to remove excess liquid.  I didn’t bother but I did pat the courgettes dry.

I insist that olive oil be used for shallow-frying this dish just as I insist that olive oil be used for frying aubergines/eggplants in order to make a parmigiana di melanzane.  It makes all the difference, really it does. Also, make sure the level of the oil is at least 4 cm level deep and don’t be surprised to see the courgettes soaking a lot of it up !

1It is better to fry the courgettes in batches on a medium high heat.  Fry until they turn goldeny-brown.2Drain the fried courgettes in a colander and then pat dry with kitchen paper.

5Place the courgettes in a deep serving dish or even in a glass jar.

Now add some garlic … I like the cloves to be cut in half, so that they will, yes, do their job and season the vegetables but will also be large enough to be spotted and set aside if people would rather not ruin their palate with an onslaught of raw garlic.

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5aOnce all the courgettes have been cooked and drained, it’s time to give them the vinegar treatment.  Use white wine vinegar … and don’t just drizzle it lightly over the courgettes, give them a good glug.  Be generous when sprinkling the salt too..

6b7 (2)8Time to add raw olive oil now.  And no ifs or buts, ONLY olive oil.  Taste and check whether more vinegar or more salt is needed.

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Use a spoon to mix everything together.8aNow, as a final touch, add some mint leaves.  Or parsely.  Or both.9The thing to do now is cover the serving dish and set it aside for 24 hours.
11Serve the concia the nex day as a vegetable side dish, or as a starter with a selection of cheeses.  Make sure the is plenty of bread to mop everything up.

You might be interested to read another post I wrote on a very similar way to cook courgettes, with a technique called ‘scapece’ in Italian : https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2011/06/16/the-mystery-dish-scapece-sun-tanned-courgettes/