A Duke, Some Ladies, Lots of Hats and An Afternoon Tea in Frascati

I have written fewer blogs last year for reasons that aren’t worth going into here but I do, I very much do, want to write a beginning-of-the-year post as a way of wishing all of you a very good one.  It’s a bit of a long ramble and might not be to everyone’s taste so if this is where you stop reading, again: HAPPY NEW YEAR and may it herald a lot of positive things for everyone !

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nice photo of frascati

The photos above and below are of Frascati’s Piazza San Rocco – easily my favourite piazza there …  overlooking Rome, and for good reason.

1.JPGChristmas and the New Year’s festivities have come but not altogether ‘gone’ because decorations linger, including the kind that are not necessarily in the best of taste with their overblown brightness and blingyness; they still adorn our rooms, and we don’t mind any clutter they’ve ushered because the days are still short and dark. And cold.  Even here in Frascati/Rome. I want to start the year on a high note, I want to think about good times, spent with family, friends and new acquaintances.  And so festivities come to mind: birthdays, usually, weddings, sometimes, parties, for sure!, Christmas naturally, New Year’s, and not forgetting last-minute get-togethers that can be rustled up in no time at all.  Often the latter are the most fun of all, and spontaneity and the unexpected can throw in that fillip that no planning, however well thought out, can hope to bring to an occasion.  It’s then we feel so ‘alive’, isn’t it.  It’s then, the day after, that we relish the memory, the camaraderie and the laughter, the high jinks of it all, often supported by tasty food and copious amounts of a favourite tipple.  I don’t know about you but “wine o’clock”, the hour or so before supper, is nearly always my favourite time of day.  If I am not clamouring after a glass of wine when supper is nearly on the table, I worry whether I am coming down with something.  (Can’t drink wine during the day, however, makes me too sleepy.)

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So, you must be thinking, can this gal have any fun without wine? Aha! And the answer might surprise you.

I have two favourite meals.  One is breakfast.  Only for years now I’ve not been eating breakfast, just drinking coffee.  Even so, I think of breakfast as one of the nicest times of day, especially on holiday, or when staying in a hotel.  A good breakfast has all the ingredients to make you want to look forward to the unfurling of the day’s events.  Toast, first and foremost.  Nice marmalade or jam.  Eggs, bacon, sausages, kippers, salmon, mushrooms, cooked tomatoes.  Fruit and fruit juice.  A croissant or a cornetto here in Italy.  Pancakes.  Crepes.  French toast. Breakfast cakes.  Yogurt.  Good quality loose leaf tea. Coffee.  It’s a feast, and the day has only just started.

The other ‘meal’, if that’s what we want to call is, is Afternoon Tea.  Yes, I used capital letters.  As someone who does not have a sweet tooth and rarely has dessert, isn’t it ‘strange’ that I just cannot resist the sheer beauty, the sense of occasion, the frivolity of a proper Afternoon Tea.  One tends to pick up more than one motto in life, or change it as our natures evolve, but there is one that has stuck in my chords for decades now, and that is Voltaire’s “le superflu, chose si nécessaire”.   Damn right, he was, to say that the superfluous is so very very necessary in our lives.  (By the way I love caviar too and can’t afford it  but I think I would favour an Afternoon Tea over caviar if I had to choose.  On the other hand, just think of the naughtiness of serving caviar at an Afternoon Tea, tee hee!)  Who can have a long face at an Afternoon Tea, hey? Who? It’s like chalk and cheese, impossible.  A normal breakfast can be just that: normal.  Afternoon Tea is always special.

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Cast of Characters

And so it was that three friends, Michelle, Victoria and I decided to organize an Afternoon Tea party nearly four years ago now.  At a tearoom run by Giancarlo delle Chiaie here in Frascati.

Now, the first thing to bear in mind is that Frascati is famous for its white wine and the fact that we have been making wine around these parts for three thousand years or so (Frascati was the very first wine in Italy to receive the formal DOC certification in 1966).  The second is that there is no such thing as Afternoon Tea in Italy.  Some Italians, true, do like their tea and but  most would considerate it a beverage that is de rigueur only when illness sets in.  I’ll never forget when I offered my father-in-law to be a cup of tea.  He looked very puzzled and answered something like, “No thank you, I’m fine.”

So imagine my surprise when Giancarlo opened a tearoom in Frascati back in 2009.   Frascati is famous for its wine taverns, known as “fraschette” or “cantine” or even “osterie”, and casual outdoor eating during the warmer months of the year.  It’s all very laid back and convivial and the opposite of posh. Trestle tables are set up outside in the streets and piazzas and the tablecloth is made out of paper.  The wine is served in sturdy glasses, forget about stems.  The wine comes in a carafe not in a bottle.  The atmosphere is ‘animated’, aka pretty much loud or raucous.  You get the picture.

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The above photo is the view of Piazza San Rocco from Giancarlo’s Tearoom

Our Giancarlo, who was an acquaintance when he opened and has now become more of a friend, is not exactly a fan of mega decibel banter and such plebeian cavorting when it comes to the enjoyment of life.  And that’s putting it mildly.  It’s not that he is a snob.  No, it’s more like he has standards and bad rustic just doesn’t do it for him.  He was outraged, for instance, by another Giancarlo (a former professional football player) who runs a wine tavern with trestle tables outside on the quaint and historic Piazza San Rocco, at the bottom of the bishop’s mansion, just across from the tearoom.  (Such a delight to eat al fresco there in Summer, the atmosphere is amazing.)

Tearoom Giancarlo simply could not forgive wine-tavern Giancarlo for having placed neon lighting above the trestle tables, his disapproval was total and gave him a case of ‘après nous le deluge’ big time.

He dresses simply and somewhat soberly.  His tearoom, however, belies the understated approach to his day to day attire.  It is housed in a former wine cellar to the side of the Piazza San Rocco, close to our town’s historic and oldest church.  It was not a large wine cellar at that (if you want to know, it belonged to my cousin Teresa’s grandmother, after whom she was named, and cousin Teresa remembers helping out her Nonna with the wine making, imagine that!).

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The entrance to Giancarlo’s Tearoom

Remember the law of Physics about Nature abhoring a vacuum?  If ever proof were needed, Giancarlo’s place would fit the bill with bells and whistles.  This cosy-sized tearoom positively drips with gilt-framed mirrors, chandeliers and candelabras, not to mention assorted bone china plates, cups, tea pots, even a Russian samovar, various paintings and lithographs, and the paint is all about green and gold.  Whilst a seasoned minimalist would suffer a serious attack of furnishing overkill upon entering, I and many others find it welcoming and full of atmosphere.  There is even a piano.  And that’s because Giancarlo is a musician, a professional organ player, as is his younger brother.  Giancarlo runs a choir too.  He will sometimes play the piano for us.

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Most of the time he is too busy.  He runs the tea room all by himself, making and baking all kinds of deliciousness, cakes and even small chocolates.  He would have fitted in beautifully at the court of Louis IV – indeed, Giancarlo was involved in a one-day event held at nearby Villa Mondragone in 2004 where actors dressed the part as king, queen, courtiers/courtesans, musicians and servants and what have you and disported themselves accordingly.  Giancarlo organized, oversaw, played and conducted all the music, and he waxes lyrical over it to this day.  He pines for the mountains and the cooler weather, whereas Michelle and I, who frequent his tearoom in the evenings when it’s time for a glass of wine as opposed to a cuppa, are just the opposite.  Michelle taught him how to make Pimms, by the way.  He taught himself how to make scones, there you go.

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Now Michelle (in the above photo) who is English and has lived in and around Rome for decades, enough to speak Italian like a native, is one of those people who are hard to describe.  She does not fit into a neat category. She is a dab hand at just about anything, and a quick thinker to boot.  For the purpose of this blog post let’s just say she single-handedly set up an invaluable website called “www.Easyfrascati.com” and is a trained sommelier, collaborating with the oldest wine estate in the area, the Principe Pallavicini.

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Vivacious Victoria, for her part, lived in New York working for MTV; she left her fast-paced action-packed life for the obvious reason (her hubby like mine is Italian) and heads a group called “Welcome Neighbour of the Castelli Romani”.   It was she, also, who set up another group called “Culture Club of the Castelli”, which includes me and Michelle (both groups are on facebook).  And the three of us do enjoy organizing cultural events that will always include food and wine somewhere along the way.

And now we come to the last person in this cast of characters.

The name of the tearoom is “La Stanza del Duca”, which translates as “The Duke’s Room”.  The duke in question is – or was rather, bless him he died in 1807 – Henry Benedict of the royal house of Stuart.

His grandfather James II was the king who his lost the throne on account of being catholic, and his daughters, Mary and then Anne, subsequently and in turn became Queens.  Prince Henry’s father James III was known as the “Old Pretender” to the British Throne. His brother was known as the “Young Pretender”, aka Bonnie Prince Charlie.  I don’t want to bore you with too much history and the Jacobite rebellions but basically our Prince Henry couldn’t be bothered about claims to the throne and contented himself with being a jolly good cardinal.  He was born a prince and the grandson of a crowned king, and was a direct relative even of Mary Queen of Scots. But he was best known as Duke of York, the title that was bestowed upon him (in the Jacobite Peerage) by his father.  He and his brother were both born in exile in Rome, and both were buried for a short while in Frascati’s St Peter’s cathedral.  And that’s because Cardinal Duke of York Henry Benedict was bishop of Frascati, amongst other things, and lived here for decades.  He was very much loved and respected for all the good works he did – and of course, he lived in the Bishop’s palace just across the road from the tearoom bearing his moniker!

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THE AFTERNOON TEA – PREPPING

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Ssssh … don’t say I said but I do have to say it.  Italians, or rather some Italians just to be on the politically correct side of the equation, find it hard to let their hair down on social occasions that are not within the strict perimeter of their homes or family/close friend connection.  Socially speaking, they tend to be on the shy side that way.  Instead, Brits, Americans and Scandinavians ‘make friends’ much more easily. Brits in particular tend to like dressing up and acting silly at parties, that’s what parties are for surely?  So Michelle, Victoria and I came up with a very cunning plan.  We decided to host the Afternoon Tea Party during the week of Carnival/Mardi Gras, just before Ash Wednesday when Italians find it all right to dress up (especially the children) and act silly or even be a little on the boisterous side if need be.  We knew we wouldn’t be able to convince our guests to dress up but we did insist on everyone wearing a hat and set up a prize for the most ingenious or original one.  We therefore called it The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.

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When people ask me why I  like Italian food so much, I answer sincerely that I love so many other cuisines of the world too, don’t get me wrong.  That said, every single time I cook Indian or Thai or Lebanese or even British food (think Sunday Roast), I am reminded of how quick (super quick!) it is to rustle up an Italian meal compared with other nations’ food.  Thus, I knew that an Afternoon Tea was going to be mega planning, shopping, and hard work, with close attention to detail.  As did both Victoria and Michelle.  I am not very good in the sweet department so I invited another good friend, Italo-Australian Liz, who is easily the best home cook I’ve ever come across, to come on board.

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Artistic Michelle came up with the invitation card within seconds of being asked.  Victoria was all about ensuring that our ladies went home with a goody bag on top of everything else and all in all, this was one of the most arduous events I have had the pleasure to be involved in (please excuse my split infinitive).

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Sandwiches, good ones, are the backbone of an Afternoon Tea and these require good butter.  Liz was visiting her daughter in Oslo just days before our event so I asked her to kindly bring over some good Norwegian butter as well as –  yes, please don’t laugh – cucumbers.  Again Sssssh! I say this in ultra hushed tones but … If there are two, and only two, food stuffs that are sadly disappointing in Italy then these must be butter and cucumbers.  The latter are often almost bitter and hard to digest.  And I always buy Lurpak here because Italian butter is just so, well, ‘unbuttery’. In fact, when family or friends come over from England and ask what they can bring, I always ask for butter which I then freeze (including gorgeous unpasteurized French Butter).    Oh, and …  and Liz also had to bring over some dill from Oslo, because dill is really hard to come by in Rome.

 

Our guest list of 24 (all ladies except for one husband who loved the male/female ratio) was composed of people we knew or friends of friends and eight nationalities were present: Italian, English, German, French, Russian, North American, South African, and Argentinian (plus Norwegian salmon, butter, dill and cucumbers).  We charged the token sum of twenty euros a head and everyone had a delightful, and I mean delightful time, and it was worth all our efforts.  Michelle’s hat was by far the most original but we decided it would not have been ‘proper’ for the organizers to win the hat prize.  There were runner-up prizes too …

 

Giancarlo was blown away by our organizational skills and the ‘correct’ tone of this happy party (lots of fun but done with style, none of that faux rustic nonsense). But the cherry on the cake, for me at least, since I am a romantic at heart, was the fact that a real British Duchess was amongst our guests enjoying the gathering to the hilt.  At one point, with no one noticing, I raised a glass of prosecco to Henry Benedict, Cardinal Duke of York, and smiled within.  I bet he was happy to see such frolicking going on so close to his erstwhile much-loved home.

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That’s me on the left, having a good laugh with Victoria.

The photos (all the good-quality ones that is) of the food and people at the party were taken by Michelle Aschacher, Leanne Talbot Nowell and Diane Epstein … all of them fabulous photographers.

Again, Happy New Year Everyone !

16Giancarlo donning a Cardinal’s hat … what else!

Supplì (Fried Rice Balls) with a Little and Much Appreciated Tip from Chef Arcangelo Dandini

Roman Supplì, like their Sicilian cousins the Arancini, are very much a street food staple, enjoyed by young and old because they taste delicious and are brilliant when it comes to stopping hunger pangs in their tracks.  Without ruining the appetite, either.

There was a time when a supplì and a cappuccino, standing up at the bar  “Il Delfino” in Rome’s central Largo Argentina, were often what I had for lunch, followed by a cigarette.  I may look back in horror at this gastronomic mash up now but neither am I totally surprised: a cappuccino and a supplì furnished just what I needed for a ‘light’ lunch that would keep me going for the rest of the day until supper.  Sometimes, if colleagues and I fancied a ‘proper’ meal we’d go to Armando al Pantheon, it was just an ordinary trattoria back in the early 1980s and no one had to book the way you do now.  And the “Il Delfino” bar is where my love affair with my husband really took off.   So you see, I have an especial fondness for them.

I did write a post about supplì back in 2011, following the classic recipe and its ingredients.  See the following link: https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2011/09/06/the-surprise-in-suppli/

The recipe I am proposing today is a riff that is inspired by one I read about, done by Roman chef Arcangelo Dandini, who owns the famous L’Argangelo restaurant and who is busy in the hospitality industry and behind many openings in Rome.   He is actually from the Castelli Romani, and we are even related – his grandmother and mine were cousins.  What a small world.  It was he who opened a place called “Supplizio”, a play on the word in Italian, in the centre of Rome, that sells only supplì basically, and very good and posh ones at that.  He is famous for his supplì’s crispiness.  And won’t reveal the secret, I don’t suppose.  What he did reveal is that there is no  need to toast the rice in olive oil – one can just toast the rice all on its own! Who knew!

I am thinking that not many of you are going to want to make supplì, and I can’t say that I blame you.  It’s a long and laborious business and I end up making them only about once a year.  But do trust me when I say that they are definitely worth it.  And the good thing is that they can be frozen.  So you can make them in advance.  The recipe I am giving you yielded around 30-35 supplì; you can make one huge batch and freeze them, and enjoy them a few at a time.

INGREDIENTS

Carnaroli or Arborio rice 500g, 3 Italian sausages, 2 medium-sized onions, 2 carrots, 4 celery stalks total, 500g plum tomatoes, 160g grated parmesan, 100g butter, 2 + 1 egg (3 eggs in total), mozzarella, flour, milk, Italian-style breadcrumbs or panko, and groundnut or olive oil for frying

(1) Ingredients for the vegetable stock: 2 celery stalks and 2 carrots

(2 )Ingredients for the risotto:  the rice, 2 onions, 2 celery stalks, the sausages, the plum tomatoes, parmesan and butter, 2 eggs

(3) Ingredients for the exterior of the supplì: 1 egg, flour and milk, breadcrumbs (panko)

Part I – The Vegetable Stock

Make the vegetable stock – just carrots and celery and plenty of water (no salt).  It should simmer for at least 20 minutes.

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Part II – The Sauce for the Risotto

3Chop the onions as finely as you can, and the celery too, and sauté them in some olive oil over a low heat. This can take any time between 10 and 15 minutes.  Add some vegetable stock after a while, to soften the texture.

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Take the skin off the sausages.

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Chop them up as finely as you can.

5When the onions and celery are ready and no longer crunchy, add the sausage meat and cook it down.

6After a while, add some of the vegetable stock – so that it doesn’t dry out.

7Blend the plum tomatoes and add them to the mix.  Simmer for about 30 minutes at least, and add salt and maybe even a teaspoon of sugar if the tomatoes are too acid.  Stir occasionally.

The ragù can be made in advance.  If you liked, you could wait for it to cool down and then put it in the fridge until the next day.

Part III – Cooking the Risotto

8Toast the rice in a nice big saucepan.  No olive oil! Just the rice.  Toast it for just a few minutes or the time it takes for the rice to go pearly white.  At this point switch the heat off.

9Add a couple or more of the simmering vegetable stock.  Watch out for the steam! Use a wooden spoon to make sure the rice absorbs this liquid and does not stick to the saucepan.

10Add the tomato sauce, all of it and switch the heat on again.  The rice needs to cook for about 20 minutes or however long it takes for it to be ‘done’.  Keep adding the vegetable stock by and by, as required, and make sure it is always piping hot.  Should you run out of stock, you can always add a little bit of boiling water.

11Turn the heat off.  Add the grated parmesan.  Use the wooden spoon to mix it in well as it melts into the risotto.  Remove the pan from the source of heat.

12Crack two eggs and beat them well.

13Wait for the rice to cool down a little and then add the beaten eggs.

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Mix well.  Taste.  Yum.  Job done.

And now the rice has to get really cold, not just cool.

Part IV – Resting the Supplì

I was catering a Christmas party for a friend of mine a few years ago and when I had reached the above stage in the supplì-making it was getting on for 1 a.m. and I was exhausted.  So I decided to leave everything to the next morning (well, technically, it already WAS morning but you know what I mean).  And so, necessity being the mother of invention, I came up with the following way of ‘dealing’ with the rice, that worked very very well indeed and that I am very happy to share with you.

15Get hold of a tray.  Measure out the amount of parchment paper that will cover it.  Wet the paper and squeeze out the excess water and lay it over the tray.

16Actually, you will need two trays for the amount that this recipe yields.

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Divide the risotto in half and lay it over the two trays equally.

18Spread the risotto flat, as it were.  Later, you can take a knife and cut the risotto into squares, one for each supplì you will make.

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Genius, no?

At this point, add another layer of wetted parchment paper over the rice, and a damp tea towel over that.  The rice needs to be kept damp, so that it doesn’t dry out.  I left my risotto kitted out like this, on two trays, out on the balcony all night long.  It was December and acted like a fridge for me.

Part V – Shaping the Supplì

Okay.  This is the bit where it takes a bit of patience – some bolstering and moral and physical support might be required.  On the other hand, depending on your temperament, this could be an agreable zen activity for you.  Hmm.  Me?  It depends.  It would depend on my mood.

25But the job has to be done.  We’ve come this far and there’s no turning back.  Avail yourself of a bowl of water.

28Dip your hands in the bowl of water.  That way, the rice won’t stick to them.

29Spread some risotto over the palm of one hand.

30Add a little chunk of mozzarella in the middle.  Make sure you have allowed the mozzarella to dry a little before use.  But if you’ve forgotten, it’s not the end of the world. Add it just as it is.  Life’s too short.

32Close your hand and then use both hands to shape the supplì into an almost oval shape.  By the way, these beautiful hands belong to my daughter, and these are photos I have taken from the previous post.

Part VI – Breading the Supplì

19In one bowl, the one on the left, I mixed the flour, the 1 egg and some milk together, to form a liquid mixture that will make the breadcrumbs cling to the supplì.  Silly me, I can’t remember the quantities.  Let’s say: 1 tablespoon of flour, 1 egg, 1 glass of milk.  That should work.  Alternatively, you could dust the supplì in plain flour first, and then dip it in an egg wash.  That’s what I did in the previous post I mentioned.

In the bowl on the right, are a couple of supplì being plunged into the breadcrumbs.  The procedure has to be done twice: i.e. first the egg mixture and then the breadcrumbs, twice.

Laborious? Are you kidding! Phaw.  A labour of love.

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21And here they are, these beauties, waiting to be fried.  Deep fried.

As it was, I decided to freeze them.

So when I do get around to frying them, I shall take a photo and add it to this post.

If any of you do decide to be foolhardy enough to want to attempt this recipe, I would love it if you wrote to me afterwards and told me how you got along.  Good luck!

P.S. Please note that these supplì in particular are somewhat on the big size.  When I have made smaller ones, I ended up making just under 50 supplì.

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How to Put Some Bling into Sad Green Beans

There are many hospitals in Rome and quite a few,  just like in London, named after a saint.  One of these is called the San Camillo hospital.  Now, we all know what hospital food is like, hardly ‘food’ at all, nothing to look at, tasteless and egregiously unappetising. And it is moreover very very very very plain, bland,   So for some reason completely unbeknownst to me, perhaps some wicked finger pointing dating back to goodness knows when, when conversation veers towards the topic of uninteresting food in Rome, very often people will make reference to San Camillo.  “Gosh, this is so tasteless, just the sort of fare you’d get at the San Camillo” might be one such comment.  Or: “Tell your mother that this wouldn’t do even at the San Camillo”.  Or yet again: “Oi! I’m going to add plenty of pancetta, we’re not at the San Camillo you know!”.  You get the picture.

And thus it is amongst some members of my family with regard to green beans.  They can so easily slide into the San Camillo slot when I serve them, just simmered and then seasoned with olive oil and lemon juice.  Some will refuse to eat them altogether.  Others will take the tiniest of portions and squeeze more lemon juice over them.  I happen to like them that way, so there, mneah.   It’s not as if I lose sleep over green beans.  I just happen to like them.

But I did have second thoughts over some leftovers in the fridge last week.

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When I took it in the ‘look’ of that cold glass bowl, I had a San Camillo  moment, I have to confess.  It looked thoroughly underwhelming.  Sad even.  And so after a little head scratching, I went about ways of making these green beans a bit more interesting. Tell me what you think.  Here we go.

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Lardo di Colonnata.   Lard.  Mmmm. Always good.

IMG_9487Some olive oil, chilli and garlic – classic concoction.

IMG_9488Rosemary needle, chopped very fine.  Now that’s different where green beans are concerned.

IMG_9489And though I am not a huge lover of balsamic vinegar (not in salads, that is), why not? I thought to myself.

So much for othe ingredients.  The cooking part was easy, for obvious reasons.

IMG_9490IMG_9491IMG_9492IMG_9493Don’t forget the salt too.

The balsamic vinegar last.

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I think next time I will add less balsamic vinegar.  Probably the best thing is to add a little at a time.

IMG_9496I’m not sure I would bend over backwards to serve green beans this way every time but I think the final result was pretty good.

IMG_9497Nothing “San Camillo” about this whatsoever.  Tee hee.

How to Hack a Caponata di Melanzane: Sweet and Sour Aubergine Recipe

I think the best way to hack a caponata is to get someone else to make one for you but he or she has to be trustworthy.  A caponata made without love can be a very disappointing affair.  I am not a goody goody, by the way, and rely on tricks and tips and short-cuts to make life run more smoothly, but when it comes to certain dishes there can be no cutting of corners.

I started out well enough, in an Eiffel Tower kind of way.

IMG_9474I cut up some aubergines/eggplant into chunks, sprinkled salt over them and placed a plate and weight over them to help their inner liquid demon ooze out more readily. By the way, the Le Creuset-type cast iron saucepan you see?  Slightly battered.  So sad, I dropped it the other day and was on the brink of throwing it away but just couldn’t find the heart to do so because it had belonged to my Swedish grandmother and so it is easily close to being 100 years old.  It can continue to be used in other ways.

IMG_9476IMG_9477I had left the aubergines to sweat for at least an hour and this is how much ‘stuff’ they released.

 

Time to rince the aubergine chunks thoroughly, to rid them of the salt.

IMG_9480Time to squeeze the water out of them.  This can be a bit of a pallaver so another good hack is to find an obliging husband to do this manly job for you.

Now the whole point of salting the aubergines is to make frying them a happy affair: they will not absorb too much oil and their texture will be more pleasing.  So, give yourself brownie points for not skipping this important step.

Off I went out then and did whatever it was I went out to do BUT I took an awful long time doing it.  Hence,  when I came home, it was late and supper had to be made and I was tired and was in no mood for frying these aubergines. Which is what is required of a true, proper Caponata di Melanzane. After a bit of head scratching and huffing and puffing and chiding myself for wanting to attempt a caponata on a busy day, I decided to go maverick.  Be a caponata iconoclast! I told myself.

IMG_9481I lay the chunks on a pyrex dish and dribbled some nice olive oil and sprinkled a little bit of  salt and … yes, you guessed it.  I put them in the oven to cook.  (Where’s that icon for the palms of both hands resting on both cheeks in a show of amazement?).  UNHEARD OF!

IMG_9484They cooked in the oven at 180°C for about 40 minutes.

IMG_9504When they cooled down, I covered them in plastic wrap and put them in the fridge.  I was exhausted and went to bed.

THE NEXT DAY

img_9584.jpgI placed 4 tablespoons of sugar in a small pan and poured white wine vinegar to cover it by more than 1 inch.  Cook the vinegar until the sugar melts and set aside.

img_9581.jpgChop up some onions and cook over a low heat.  Add a bit of salt as well as sugar.IMG_9585When the onions have gone golden ..

IMG_9586Add some very good-quality Italian plum tomatoes.  A caponata is best made with sweet fresh tomatoes but I didn’t have any on me.  I used a pair of scissors to chop ’em directly in the saucepan.  This is the ‘salsa’ that we are preparing, and it should cook for about 15-20 minutes.

IMG_9587Celery.  Celery is an integral part.  Pare the celery stalks, cut them up and blanch them in some salted boiling water. Drain and set aside.

img_9588.jpgAlso – but I don’t have any photo – rinse some salt dried capers over and over again, and have them at the ready.

IT ALL COMES TOGETHER

Add the celery and cook for a couple of minutes.

IMG_9590IMG_9591The sauce was getting a little thick and now was the right time to pour in the sweetened vinegar.  Sorry, no photo of me pouring it in.

IMG_9592Then in go the baked aubergines.

IMG_9593Lots of fresh basil.  Combine all the ingredients.  Job done, the heat can be turned off.

IMG_9594One last thing.  Toast some pine kernels.

img_9595.jpgOnce it had all cooled down, I put the caponata in a glass container in the fridge.  So the great thing about this recipe is that it can be prepared in advance.

IMG_9652We were getting ready for an outdoor grill with family, at my in-laws’ house in the Marche and the caponata took pride of place where the vegetable side dishes were concernerd.

IMG_9653I stuck some more fresh basil in the middle.

SSSI9783And everyone said the caponata tasted lovely.

I, being a fusspot, continue to prefer the fried version.  But it’s good to know that the next best thing is the oven approach.

I don’t know whether you are acquainted with Frank Fariello? If not, you should definitely check out his super blog “Memorie di Angelina”.  Bless him, he wrote the following comment on a recent post I had written:

“Lighter it may be but never as good.” Amen, I say, to that. I’ve tried various light version of parmigiana and they’re invariably disappointing. Nothing like the original recipe, heavy as it may be. I remember my grandmother dipped her eggplant slices in flour and egg as well. Made the dish even heartier but boy was it heavenly!

 

We’re on the same page Frank and I … I am a fried-food-fanatic! But, if you don’t like the idea of frying, this oven cooked aubergine caponata will do very well indeed, I promise.

Pasta on the Beach: Courgette Concert

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My husband and I decided to spend a day on the beach at Porto Ercole. It’s on Tuscany’s Monte Argentario coast.  That’s what I like about living near Rome, we’re never too far away from a really nice beach.

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Lovely clear, clean water and – for a wimpy wuss like me who can’t bathe in normal ‘cool’ water – there was the added advantage of the temperature being warm enough for me.

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This was late August, and the beach still quite busy.  But not overcrowded as beaches tend to be in many parts of Italy during the June-September holiday season.

A few days before, at work in the kitchen at the Casale Minardi wine estate, I watched as chef Luigi went about making a very simple pasta dish.  Hmmm.  Simple but delicious, so I just had to try it out for myself.

INGREDIENTS: courgettes/zucchine, olive oil, an onion, some pork jowl (guanciale) – I suppose pancetta or bacon would do, lemon zest, grated parmesan or pecorino cheese, almonds.  P.S.  Remove the guanciale and this is easily a vegetarian recipe.

 

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I snapped the courgette blossoms off and placed them in a bowl of fairly warm but not hot water.  By the way, if you can’t find courgette blossoms, this pasta will still taste good.  And, as a piece of perhaps not very vital information, I can also tell you that these were female flowers.  The male flowers have a little stem to them.

4I removed the flowers after about 15 minutes and left them to dry out for a bit.  Notice how they have plumped out by a good soak in the water. Set aside.

Chop up some almonds.  You could toast them first if you liked.  I couldn’t be bothered. Set aside.

7Grate some pecorino cheese.  If you can’t find pecorino, parmesan will do very nicely.  Set aside.

Get a packet of pasta ready.  Set aside.

Slice some guanciale very thinly, set aside.

Enough with all this setting aside!  Time to get cooking.

Put the water onto boil.

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Roughly chop an onion and cook it with some olive oil.  It must not brown, okay?  Low and steady heat.  Go for a blond colour.

9Now add the slices of guanciale.

10Give the guanciale enough time to render its fat and then add the courgettes.

11Cook the courgettes until you are happy with their texture and now add some lemon zest – in slices, not cut up finely.  Because you will remove the lemon zest before serving the pasta.  If you are a lemon zest fiend, as Luigi the chef most definitely is, you could chop it very very finely and leave it in.

12Time to add the almonds.  Combine the ingredients.

13Tear the courgette blossoms and add them too.

14Mix them in and turn the heat off until you are ready to drain the pasta directly into the saucepan.  Next time, I would add the blossoms last.

15Here we go.

Turn the heat on and add some of the cooking water.  Finish cooking the pasta. Then take the saucepan away from the source of heat.

16Add some of the pecorino and mix it in.

17Taste.

18Add some more.  Taste.

19Add a little bit more cooking water if necessary.  And yes, it was necessary.  It helped to make everything come together.

Remove the lemon zest and serve.  Keep some for leftovers.

20Enjoy some the next day on the beach – an essential secret ingredient for this recipe.

 

Patience Permitting, a Parmigiana di Melanzane Most Fitting

My friend Libby, with help from our friend Sandy, prepared a wonderful aubergine/eggplant gratin for our lunch in the Umbrian countryside towards the end of last September (i.e. in 2017).  It was a lovely sunny day, one that allowed us to enjoy the al fresco backdrop to it all, served over what was once an olive millstone.

IMG_0598As we tucked into the dish, we commented appreciatingly about it and drew similarities to the classic Parmigiana di Melanzane.

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Sandy was quite amazed at how much oil the sliced rounds of aubergine guzzled as she pan fried them.  For the rest, it was a fairly simple dish to prepare.  The sauce was made with chopped fresh tomatoes, garlic and olive oil, and the layers were showered with grated parmesan.  They are then cooked in the oven until done. Fresh basil added at the very end.  And more parmesan can be added to the serving on the individual dish.

Instead, a Parmigiana di Melanzane, a proper one that is, ranks top of the list in the High Maintenance Category of summer recipes.  Which is why it is so highly appreciated at the dinner table when a friend or family member serves it and, also, why it can be the cause of much gustatory disappointment when it doesn’t live up to its standards.  There can be no cheating when it comes to a good Parmigiana di Melanzane, although variations are admitted (see two links at the bottome of this post).  And that means that the slices must be fried in olive oil and not ‘cooked’ in the oven (roasted).  When I overhear comments like “Oh, the roasted/grilled version is much lighter and just as good”, I turn my eyes heavenwards or allow myself an inward groan.  Lighter it may be but never as good.

The parmigiana di melanzane comes with not a little baggage when it comes to both historical fact and conjecture (not to mention nonsense).  Dishes were cooked “alla parmigiana” (i.e. cooked with parmesan and inside a dish that could be placed in an oven) well before aubergines even arrived in Italy.  The Latin word “parma” means a shield – and the way the sliced aubergines are set out in the dish does indeed resemble a short of ‘shield’ – so much so that an emiment Italian food historian, Massimo Montanari, reckons that could  be behind the naming of the dish.  The recipe most likely originated in Naples whose rulers were also those of Sicily until Italy became a nation in 1861 – and that would explain why both lay claim to the orgin of this recipe.

I think I’ll just get on with it now and leave history behind for a bit.

1This is how I prepped the aubergines/eggplants – I took a lot of skin off.34I sliced them length-wise and sprinkled plenty of salt over them.

5I placed the slices between two large plates.7I put a heavy saucepan over the plates, to squeeze the aubergine slices and help rid them of whatever liquid in them makes them slightly bitter.9This was quite the tower I created in the kitchen, eh!, what do you think!10It didn’t take long for the aubergines to start ‘perspiring’.11So much so, that quite a lot of liquid started trickling out.121314I had left (if I remember correctly) the aubergines to sweat away for one hour – and then threw away the liquid and put the slices of aubergine to rinse in a tub of cold water.  I then patted them dry, or as dry as I could.

While all that was going on, in the meantime, I was making the tomato sauce, with fresh tomatoes.  It was the  height of Summer after all when tomatoes are at their best.

1516Get hold of the sweetest tomatoes you can lay your  hands on, cut them in half, cut an onion in  half, sprinkle plenty of salt and add a few basil leaves.

17Turn the heat on and cook for about 20 minutes.

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19Use a food mill to strain the tomatoes.19aDon’t throw the watery bit away – you can use it in another sauce. Or make a Bloody Mary with it!20Our sauce can be cooked down now.  Add some olive oil.21Cook away, add some salt, taste, add a pinch of sugar if you think it needs it.  Set aside.

Time to start frying.

22Pour plenty of olive oil into your frying pan.

23.jpg24.jpgDry the slices of aubergine as much as you can – and then get frying.252627This is the busy bit: the aubergines being fried in batches, then left to drain on a colander.  But it gets exciting too!  Notice how little oil drips off the fried aubergines? See below.

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Time to start assembling.  The hard part is over.

28.jpgSpoon some sauce onto the bottom of a baking dish – not a lot.

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Place one layer of aubergines, some mozzarella, plenty of grated parmesan.  Regarding the mozzarella: cut it up and put it in a colander/sieve for about one hour before use.  That will help to dry it out.30

31Add some tomato sauce: not too much.32Repeat until you finish all the aubergines.  Add one last dolloping of the tomato sauce on top, as well as some more olive oil.  Bake in an oven at 200°C for about an 40-45 minutes (maybe less? I can’t remember, sorry – but you’ll see when it’s ready).

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A parmigiana di melanzane is best eaten at room temperature.

Yes, it does take a lot of time and there is quite a lot of fuss.  But, maybe, once a year? Is it worth it?  Of course it is.

Below are the links I  mentioned earlier on, that are a variation on the theme … These other two recipes were also good, by all means, but this one ranks highest in my opinion. And I suppose I can put that down to the salting of these nightshades, these shady aubergines/eggplants.

(1)  https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2011/08/27/window-slats-and-the-naming-of-a-dish-la-parmigiana-di-melanzane/

(2) https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2011/03/01/seasonally-incorrect/

Stuffed Courgettes/Zucchine Ripiene Baked in the Oven

“Zucchine ripiene”, Italian for “stuffed courgettes”, is such a commonplace Summery dish around these parts that butchers sell them already prepared for you – all you have to do is cook them.  I wrote a post about them a while ago (six years ago! – here’s the link: https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2012/09/07/stuffed-courgettes-zucchine-ripiene/ ).  In that post, I showed how I did the stuffing myself.  This time, I had bought the ready-to-go courgettes from the butcher’s.  That time, I cooked them in a saucepan … THIS time, I decided to bake them in the oven.

In my last post, I confessed to my not being the best of gardeners, not even when it comes to herbs and the balcony.  Except for basil and marjoram, and this year rosemary too thank Goodness, I find that some of the herbs can be a bit on the ‘precious’ side (not tarragon, bless it).  There is, however, ONE very Roman exception-herb that is wholeheartedly generous, so generous indeed that it just ‘sprouts’ and grows on its own, without the slightest bit of help from anyone: and that is the “mentuccia romana” or “pennyroyal” as it is called in English.  Hands up anyone who’s even heard of pennyroyal, let alone used it.  Right?  Right …

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Here it is, playing peekaboo from the bottom of a flower pot.

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And here is another one … just like Topsy, the character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, who claimed that she did not know where she came from, she “just grewed”.

Mentuccia is very often the preferred herb in Rome for stuffing artichokes.  Some prefer parsely – some a mix of the two.  I have added a bit of mentuccia to a tomato sauce for a pasta dish.  A little goes a long way, it is quite potent.  That day, I was feeling very daring, and decided to depart on two accounts from the traditional way of cooking stuffed courgettes.  A) I would add mentuccia and B) I would bake them in the oven, instead of braising them on the cooker/stove top.  I am such a rebel … a pennyroyal iconoclast.

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Just a splash of olive oil and then a few sprigs of mentuccia.

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In go the stuffed courgettes and a layer of cut up tomatoes. Salt too.

61.jpgAnd now … bake in a preheated oven at around 200°C for 50 minutes or until done.

8Forgot to mention that I baked them with the lid ‘on’.  If you haven’t got a lid you could always use aluminium foil.

10Very easy to make.  And the mentuccia did indeed add a little bit of ooomph.

Warning: this dish needs to be served with plenty of  bread to soak up all the lovely sauce.  A glass of wine … or two … to keep the conviviality going.