Merry May Fettuccine with Spring Greens

One can only imagine with what a hurrah! welcome! the arrival of Spring would have been greeted generations ago – not only because it heralded warmer temperatures but also because there would be an increase in the variety of food one could eat.  A bit of novelty for the poor ol’ palate.

We all take fridges and freezers for granted, don’t we, as well as the transportation of food across countries and continents.  Can you imagine having to do with just salted or brined fare for months on end? Doesn’t bear thinking about.  So I expect that the sense of gastronomic expectation previous generations had with the break of Winter lingers on still, even though we live in an age where formerly summer-only crops are available all year round now (think tomatoes, salads, aubergines, courgettes etc).

Where I live in Italy, within spitting distance of Rome, it is only artichokes, peas and broad beans (fava beans in American English) that are not available all year round, properly ‘seasonal’ I mean.  They are ingredients that are all about Spring, and rebirth and regeneration.  For the rest, one can find nearly all the other vegetables in stalls and supermarkets, and these veggies are either grown in greenhouses or imported (green beans from Morocco for instance).  One of the reasons I began boycotting supermarkets was when I read the label on the provenance of lemons one day.  Italy is bursting with lemons and yet these were imported from Argentina! Nearly all the garlic to be found in Italy hails from Spain, again a conundrum for me since I am sure that garlic can grow extremely well on this peninsula.  And one final moan: tomatoes (tasteless ones at that) from Holland.  Seriously … I am not against the export/import of foods as such, so that’s not it.  But surely it doesn’t make sense to import food(s) that one can grow perfectly well in one’s own country?

Enough of this rambling, and on with the recipe.  The point I wish to underscore is that fresh, seasonal vegetables are an absolute delight and inspire one to treasure their transient presence at our table.  They are there to remind us to be grateful for variety.

I was also inspired by having favourite son visiting us for the weekend.  As it happened, my husband could not join us for the Sunday lunch but I thought I would make a ‘special’ pasta anyway for our two kids (we also have a favourite daughter).  I decided that ‘fresh’ had to be the theme, and that included my making my own fettuccine.  Home-made pasta is a treat and not difficult to make (basically 100g of flour per egg per person).

INGREDIENTS FOR THE PASTA SAUCE

Courgettes, asparagus, broad beans, tomatoes, guanciale/pork jowl (pancetta or Italian sausage or even a little bit of bacon will do if you can’t get the pork jowl), peas (I used frozen because that’s all I had) fresh rosemary, basil, marjoram and mint, lemon zest, parmigiano (parmesan cheese) and pecorino cheese.

The tip I would like to point out today is to create a sort of ‘broth’ in which to cook the pasta.  If you season the cooking water this way, the final pasta will take on an especially tasty flavour.

I did not, as is my wont, take a photo of every single step as I cooked but I am sure it won’t be a problem for you.  The procedure for this pasta sauce is far from problematic.  True, there are a number of steps and ingredients involved, yes there are, but any care or difficulty is to be gleefully thrown to the wind!  Winter is over, let’s hear it for Spring!

Ready?

Cut the asparagus about an inch or slightly more below the tip.  Then slice the tips into two or three or even four parts and set aside.  Use what is left of the usable asparagus to make up the broth.  I cut up these stems into smaller pieces because that will make it easier to process the broth at a later stage.

1Place the asparagus inside the pasta pan.  Cover with water but don’t put the whole amount of water you would normally use to cook the pasta – only about half the amount.  This will make it easier for you to process the asparagus once they are cooked.  And do add a little salt too.

2

When the asparagus are cooked, use a hand held immersion blender and process them into a broth.  Now add extra water.

3

Also add a sprig of rosemary – this will also impart a nice flavour to the asparagus ‘broth’ in which to cook the pasta.4I got favourite son to shell the broad beans for me.  I had simmered them for less than 10 minutes.

5And here they are stripped of their outer skin.  Set aside.

6Do you know what this is? I hadn’t known.  It’s fresh garlic.  My first time.  If you can’t find fresh garlic I expect that an onion would be a good substitute for this recipe (rather than ordinary garlic).

7

Chop up the fresh garlic – not all of it mayble, just enough to smarten the dish up with.

8And now it’s time to get serious.  Put the pasta broth on the boil and add extra salt when it starts simmering.  Also, pour some olive oil into a large saucepan and add some thinly sliced guanciale (again – pancetta or bacon or Italian sausage will do if you can’t find guanciale/pork jowl). Gently cook the guanciale.

9Start by adding the garlic  and cook for about two minutes …

10Now courgettes sliced into happy discs …

11Next come the slices of asparagus tips.

12And now a smattering of peas (frozen is all I had), two small quartered tomatoes and the broad beans.  Time to sprinkle some salt.

13Marjoram and basil go into the pan too.

14Toss the vegetables about gently as they cook and become acquainted with one another. At this point add a ladleful of the asparagus  broth.

15Also add a teaspoon or a wee bit more of butter.

16Add the smallest amount of lemon zest (put more in if you like – I don’t like too much of the stuff in my cooking, just enough to give the dish a little lift without overwhelming with its citrusy clout).

17When you think the veggies are nicely cooked and ready to receive their royal highnesses the fettuccine … lower the latter into the simmering and salted asparagus broth.  It won’t take long for fresh pasta to cook.

18Drain the pasta directly into the saucepan with the veggies.  Add a bit more asparagus broth.

19Now is the time to sprinkle a little grated parmigiano (parmesan cheese) into the mix and combine till the cheese is totally blended with the sauce.

20

When plating up, add a few  mint leaves on top of the pasta.

21Final touch: sprinkle grated pecorino cheese and serve.

And, naturally, enjoy!!!

P.S. Frank Fariello has recently written a post on a very similar dish.  Great minds think alike ! http://memoriediangelina.com/2018/05/11/fusilli-primavera/

Bread on My Mind

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Yes, yes I know … these are strawberries, not bread.  (Also not in the picture was a very good Torta Caprese too.)  Bear with me.

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And this is a main course of grilled lamb chops and beef short ribs.  (Roast potatoes were served along with them.)

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These, instead, are’nibbles’ that are so typical in and around Rome at this time of year: fresh broadbeans (fava beans) that pair so well with Roman pecorino cheese.  As well as a most enticing spice-topped Robbiola cheese to be spread over home-made bread.

As you might have surmised, I am doing a meal ‘backwards’.  The meal in question was only less than a week ago, on May 1st, “primo maggio” or Labour Day, a bank holiday in many countries.   We were invited to lunch by Wendy Holloway and her husband Maurizio, who live near Riano, north of Rome.  Wendy and I met via a Girl Scout course (a long long time ago and that’s another story) and we share a passion for food and cooking.  She has been running Italian cooking classes and tours for over twenty years now (her website is https://flavorofitaly.com/).   

Also invited were Phyllis Knudsen and her husband Joe from Vancouver, who were visiting Rome.  Phyllis is a retired chef and her blog is http://oracibo.com/.  Joe is a photographer and Wendy is totally into photography at the moment, so they were able to indulge in some detail over the subject as we ate our way through the ‘very simple lunch’, as she put it, that she had prepared for us.  There is genius and delight in ‘simple food’ when presented this way.

And now for getting to the point of this post.

You might have noticed that the back-to-front menu I presented skipped a rather important course in a typical Italian meal, i.e. the ‘primo’ – the pasta or risotto or soup course.  And indeed Wendy had prepared a very nice pasta for us that got wolfed down pretty quickly by all of us (I won’t snitch and tell you who asked for extra helpings).

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There it is, the pasta (in a guanciale, peas and courgettes sauce) in the plates about to be eaten.  Do notice, also, that there are two loaves of bread, prominently placed at the head of the table.  Wendy, once she sat down, began slicing the (delicious) bread she had made to serve to her guests, but mostly her husband.  She confided to us that ‘Mo’ as she calls him is very Italian and can’t eat a meal without bread.  I had to smile.  It is a peculiar Italian eating habit that has ancient roots.

In article she wrote last November entitled “Where and How to Eat in Venice”, the Venice Food Guide Monica Cesarato warns:

  • Don’t ever eat bread with your pasta. Bread is only eaten with the second course or to do la scarpetta (literally “make a little shoe”) and mop up the leftover sauce on the plate of your first course.

Well, I’ll have to disagree with her … for those who like their bread in Italy, they think that bread can be eaten from start to finish.  If anything, it is bread that kicks off the meal, accompanying the antipasto, no?

Fast forward a few days and I am in Venice, about to meet up for the second time in my life with a very ‘interesting’ almost 90 year-old man – I don’t know how else to describe him, so many other adjectives come to mind – the Italian born Victor Hazan, of whom I have grown very fond.  He has been living in Florida for the last decades but he and his late wife Marcella had lived in Venice for twenty years previously, running a very successful cooking school.   He had written to me to say that this was his last trip to Italy and I could not resist the opportunity of seeing him again.  The day I arrived, he invited me and two men for lunch, one of whom is from Bolzano.  His name is Andrea Tosolini and he is an importer of Italian foods; also lives in Florida (his wife is from Florida) and he and Victor are friends.  Anyway, just as we met outside Victor’s hotel, Andrea presented Victor some some edible presents.  See for yourselves.

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He was waxing lyrical over the good quality and incredible variety of breads to be found in his home town of Bolzano.  And, again, I just had to smile.  Only in Italy, I thought to myself, could someone bring bread as an offering, only in Italy is bread taken to be magical and not just ‘good to eat’.

I was reminded of an article I wrote for a magazine called “In Search of Taste” in 2014, which I want to repost today, with the odd edit here and there.

I wrote the original article thanks to, and at the request of, my late friend Gareth Jones from London.  We became friends via Facebook, coincidentally on Marcella Hazan’s page, commenting a post she had written regarding salt. And then we became friends in ‘real life’ and met in London, where he invited me to lunch at Joy King Lau’s (http://www.garethjonesfood.com/?p=6615). 

And then again, coincidentally, or was it serendipity really? it was through Facebook and Gareth’s page that I got to meet Phyllis Knudsen.   She regrets never having had the chance to physically meet Gareth.  We both adored him, his outlook, his naughtiness, his refreshing outspokenness, his warmth and sense of humour, his incredible wealthh of culinary knowledge, and continue to miss him (he died in 2015).  Do look up his blog, if you like fine writing and unusual and knowledgeable insights on food, you will easily become engrossed. 

And now for my article on bread in Italy, I hope you enjoy it.

A SLICE OF BREAD, A SLICE OF LIFE

Sacrosanct.  A word more usually associated with the liturgical is indissolubly linked to bread in Italy, and of inestimable value is the place that bread holds deep in the soul of the Italians.

The story is a long one and — “O Tempora, O Mores!”  — times do change but, despite the insidious infiltration of an aesthetic equating thinness with beauty, the encroachment of protein-biased diets and the faddish battle waged against the umbrella term ‘carbohydrates’, bread continues to be the first thing that is brought to the client in every restaurant or trattoria all over the country.  All menus will state the restaurant’s service price which is called  “pane e coperto”, meaning “bread and cover charge”.  It is taken for granted that you shall eat bread, there is no need for the client to ask for it.  People working in restaurants may now be getting somewhat inured to the vexation that is a tourist ordering a cappuccino at the end of a meal (to an Italian, that would be the equivalent of someone ordering a bowl of cereal at the end of a copious meal) but will understand if a client is inclined to ask for some olive oil to accompany the bread on the table.  Though not an Italian custom as such, it makes sense.  And a waiter will of course understand if you want to order more bread.  Bread accompanies the whole meal, from start to finish until dessert, and is not served only at the beginning as in bread-and-butter eating countries.

Apart from those idiosyncratic individuals who like to concoct their own nutrition régimes, in Italy there can be no weight watching diet without the daily inclusion of at least some morsel of bread.  The déluge of allergy driven syndromes is most likely as statistically significant among Italians as it is elsewhere and Italy has become a leading country in the sale of gluten-free foods, with an ever increasing number of shops and supermarkets reserving a shelf for those poor unfortunates who cannot eat their daily bread the normal way.

“Give us this day our daily bread” quoth the Lord’s prayer.  The Italian language quoths heavily when it comes to metaphors and bread.  In Italy one does not earn one’s bacon, one earns one’s bread: “guadagnarsi il pane” and, if you’re really not earning very much at all, then you are earning just enough to get by on a little piece of crust: “guadagnarsi la stozza”.  The Italian equivalent of Murphy’s law states that God gives teeth to those who don’t have bread, and gives bread to those who don’t have teeth with which to eat it. If you are blessed with a good nature, then you are as “good as bread”, what can be saintlier than bread?.  If you are not cut out for a particular job, on the other hand, then that job is just “not the kind of bread suitable for your teeth.”  If you tend to be tight-fisted, then you will most certainly be known to “measure your bread”.  Shall I carry on?  If you “eat bread by betrayal” it means that you are earning money without having worked to earn it.  But again, if you “remove the bread from your mouth”, it means that you are a self-sacrificing person who would do anything for a loved one (i.e. including giving a loved one your share of bread).

Bread is taken very seriously in Italy.  It is eaten daily.  It is eaten fresh — ergo it has to be bought every day (these days less so because some breads using specific floursand last longer), a concept that can unnerve the more northern European or American expats who come and live in Italy and are used to buying their bread as part of their weekly supermarket shop.  Bread eating may be part of their culture, but buying fresh bread every day is not.  In Italy, bread is literally, and not metaphorically, the bread of life — and life is, by definition, “fresh”.  It’s like mother’s milk.  It is ingrained in the depths of the social unconscious and part and parcel of the DNA survival instinct.  And nowhere is this truer than in the average household, where no table is ever considered properly “set” until the bread basket makes its appearance.

Coming from an Italian family whose one member, my mother, decided she wasn’t very Italian at all in this respect and found herself eschewing the whole bread-eating ethos, I grew up as a child in peripatetic circumstances that did not impose bread at the dinner table, it was more of a choice.  Later, when I first invited my very Italian in-laws to dinner, I couldn’t for the life of me understand why my father-in-law looked so shifty and … well … pained almost as I went about serving the first course (a big bowl of steaming pasta of which I was rather proud).  He didn’t say anything but his body language spoke of unease and of a reluctance to tuck in.  For a minute, I thought it might be that he didn’t like the pasta on his plate but luckily just then, almost as an afterthought although of course it was not, my husband brought the bread basket to the table.  As if by magic, my father-in-law’s face underwent a visible metamorphosis; his features relaxed, he gave a small sigh of relief, reached for a slice of bread, and was finally able to enjoy his meal.

There exists a word in Italian that is virtually untranslatable: “companatico”.  It stands for food or a meal that is to be eaten accompanied by bread — and I can tell you that that would encompass all foods, basically, save for fruit! Walnuts and bread … yes, that was considered a snack a few decades ago.  A slice of bread and butter with plenty of sugar sprinkled on top: that was considered a tea-time treat when I was growing up (late 1950s/early 1960s).

My mother sometimes makes her own bread, and very good it is too, but she can’t be trusted to serve bread whenever she invites us over for dinner.  She has the good grace, thankfully, to warn me in advance and telephones to say, “I am making duck à la bla bla, and three kinds of vegetable this, that and the other, and rice à la bla bla.  But bring bread if you want any.”  She has learned that “optional” is not a term I now associate with bread.  Yet she too considers bread sacrosanct and accords it the respect it is due in that peculiarly Italian kind of way.  She is almost incapable of throwing stale bread away, for instance, and if by any chance she has to, she will kiss it first.  Like all of her generation, who underwent the appalling trials and physical tribulations of the Second World War, she well remembers the ravages that food scarcity brought about during the last year especially.  Bombed out of their home in Frascati, they were lucky to find rough lodging in the countryside close to the town which they shared with an extended family.  Rationing imposed its draconian law but the law of Nature, the law of survival, is even fiercer.  My wise grandmother placed whatever bread was available inside the safety of a pillow case, which she would sew tight every evening, Penelope-like, before going to bed and hide in a safe place, knowing full well that someone might be “tempted” to sneak in and avail themselves of a piece of bread.

The history of Italy is also the history of its population’s hunger and the mass emigration that it occasioned over the course of roughly 100 years.  And it was bread, always bread, that signified plenty.  In a bid to make Italy self-sufficient over imports, Mussolini imposed a policy in the 1920s to reduce the volume of imported wheat, which would then be used to make bread, consumed in Italy. It was his “Battle for Grain” of 1925 and he even wrote an essay entitled “In Praise of Bread” in 1928.

With the benefit of distance, Mussolini’s rhetoric can be analysed from many a critical point of view (not to mention the fact that his policy was a shambles and drove the cost of bread up to unaffordable levels) but it cannot be denied that his overly sentimental “Hymn to Bread” would have struck a chord in the hearts of the Italians he was rousing at the time, using it as part of his propaganda … and who knows, even perhaps falling for the ploy himself?, since he was no big eater and suffered from an ulcer.

“Italians !

Love bread –

Heart of the home

Perfume of the table

Joy of the hearth.

Respect bread –

Sweat of the brow

Pride of labour

Poem of sacrifice

Honour bread –

Glory of the fields

Fragrance of the land

Festival of life.

Do not waste bread –

Wealth of your country

The sweetest gift of God

The most blessed reward of human toil.”

Artisanal bread-making is enjoying a come-back in Italy but there was a time when it was mainly home-made and/or artisanal.  Wealthy and aristocratic families might have their own kitchens and ovens but poorer people had to rely on the communal ovens to bake their home-made bread.  This engendered the creation of family crests to “mark” each loaf and make it distinguishable from the rest.  Larger towns and cities would of course have bakeries where bread could be bought.  Home-made bread, however, continued to maintain its hallowed status in many parts of the country.

In an article published in the daily “Il Resto del Carlino” in February 1965, the Italian author Ignazio Silone recalled how great was his grandmother’s sadness upon parting from him those many years ago, when he had to flee Italy for political reasons. It was his grandmother who had raised him and his brothers when his mother had been killed in a terrible earthquake in the Abbruzzo Region of Italy.  When he tried to re-assure his grandmother that he would be able to find bread to eat no problem where he was going, her infinitely tragic response was “Yes.  Bought bread.  My poor child, having to eat bought bread!”  Silone’s article coincided with heavy snows that year isolating several small villages in the Abbruzzo, making it necessary for helicopters to drop food for the inhabitants – including bread, because by then, by 1965, no one used communal ovens any longer and thus the art of baking bread at home was lost.

It is estimated that there are about 250 different kinds of breads throughout Italy, some of them still baked in a wood-fired oven.  Each Region will have its specialty and some breads have achieved formal status, be it PGI – whose Italian acronym equivalent is IGP (which is awarded by the European Union – indicating protected geographical denomination ) or DOP (Protected Designation of Origin).  The most notable examples are the breads from: Altamura DOP, the Casereccio di Genzano Igp, the Matera Igp and the Coppia Ferrarese Igp. The bread of Altopascio near Lucca has been famous since the Middle Ages when it was meted out to pilgrims walking their way to Rome on the Via Francigena. The bread Bozza Pratese, from Prato near Florence, also ranks very highly in longevity and popularity.  Tuscany, so far as bread goes, is especially famous for scorning any inclusion of salt whatsoever, a practice that has several historical explanations including making virtue out of necessity, in that the tax levied on salt was so high that people learned to make do without it. Whatever the reason, however, the Tuscans soon got used to this canon and have revered it ever since.  Dante even refers to it in his Divine Comedy.

“Tu proverai sì come sa di sale
lo pane altrui, e come è duro calle
lo scendere e ‘l salir per l’altrui scale”(Il Paradiso, Canto XVII, lines 58-60.

 It is from this canto that Dante learns of his imminent exile from Florence and is given some idea of the difficulties and desolation awaiting him. ”You shall learn how salty is the taste of another’s bread, and how hard a path the descending and climbing another’s stairs,” he is told.  Talk about rubbing salt in the wound …

It is interesting to note, too, that the bread of Terni in southern Umbria is also “sciapo” (without salt) as is that from other parts of northern Lazio just across the border.  Tuscany and this central area, known as Etruria, which includes the southern Marches, were the lands of the Etruscans and one may suppose that the disdain for salt might have been Etruscan in origin.  By contrast, the bread of Naples is very savoury indeed, the salt lavishly included.

The flours for bread making may vary too, from wheat to rice to corn flour (to make “pan giallo” – yellow bread – in Emilia Romagna and Lombardy), bread using millet in Milan (pan de mej), from durum wheat in southern Italy to the use of rye wheat in the north (Valle D’Aosta, Piedmont, Trentino Aldo Adige and the Valtellin in Lombardy).  Oil will be used in some breads, lard in others.  Nuts can be added, or seeds, or dried fruits and raisins.  Special breads are prepared for occasions such as Easter, as for example in Umbria and Basilicata, or for saint’s days, parties and weddings, as for example in Sardinia and Sicily.  In these two islands, bread is used for decorative purposes too, as an art form, in celebration of saints’ days and religious occasions.

An old custom, now virtually vanished, was to bring a slice of bread and some salt when visiting a friend’s house for the first time, as a token of well wishing. I was surprised to see the same gesture acted in the 1937, black-and-white film “Conquest”, starring Charles Boyer as Napoleon.  When Napoleon enters the house of Marie Waleska (acted by Greta Garbo), the married woman he wants to seduce, he dips a bit of bread in a bowl of salt before rushing to embrace her.

Bread is called into question even when it comes to polite behaviour at the table in Italy.  When there is a delicious sauce left on the plate, it is normal for some to use a bit of bread to mop up this sauce with the bread.  It is called “fare la scarpetta”, making a little shoe out of the bread to clean up the plate.  This behaviour is heavily frowned upon in polite society, however, and no one in their right mind would dream of “fare la scarpetta” in a formal setting.  But …furtively … most people will enjoy such an atavistic pleasure and think nothing of it.  In public, you can get away by apologising for what you are about to do, knowing you will be forgiven.

In terms of superstition, the Italians are not as worried about spilling salt these days as they are about spilling olive oil.  In the past, superstition ruled that breadcrumbs must never be thrown away, they must be burned.  When making bread at home, a cross marked the loaf before allowing it to prove, in order to invoke God’s blessing and in sign of gratitude.  When cooked, the bread must always be cut on the flat side down.  Doing it otherwise would have meant turning your back to God.  If ever there was any leftover bread, it would be used to add to soups (“pancotto” – literally cooked bread, or “pappa al pomodoro” for instance).  Slices of day-old bread would be toasted to make bruschetta or fettunta or crostini.  Breadcrumbs are still toasted in a little olive oil to scatter over pasta dishes, to add a crunch factor.  When no parmesan cheese was available to sprinkle over pasta, the breadcrumbs became the cheese of the poor.  Meatless meatballs are still made with bread, to which some cheese or anchovy or vegetables can be added.  Certain breads are even fried – coccoli in Tuscany are fried balls of bread.  And if the bread goes stale to the point that it is really hard – no problem! revive it in water, then squeeze the bread, place it in a bowl, add tomatoes, spring onions, cucumber and lots of basil and olive oil and voilà -you have the perfect summer dish, the “panzanella”.  Older, toothless people would sup over chunks of bread dunked in hot milk. If the bread were stale, no matter, the hot milk would soften it.

For a nation that values bread to the point that it will include reference to it even in Christmas cakes (“panettone” – which means big bread, “pandoro” which means golden bread and is similar to a panettone but without any raisins, or “Panpepato” – peppery bread, made with spices and nuts), it is perhaps surprising that Italy has no equivalent of bread and butter pudding or pain perdu.  It was bog standard , instead, for Italians to eat bread in the mornings, dunked in milk or caffellatte.  Butter and jam to grace the bread were also normal.  If it is usual for English speakers to describe the usefulness or desirability of something as “the best thing since sliced bread”, the same would not be true of Italy where industrial sliced bread is truly atrocious and cloying and tasteless (not to mention that it contains “alcol etilico”, i.e. ethanol).  Good, soft white bread slices do exist when properly made , however, and are referred to with foreign words: pan carré, pan brioche – perhaps because only the upper classes would have had access to this sort of bread in the past, and these people spoke French and were genteel.

The triangular sandwich with the crusts cut off is called “tramezzino”, roughly translatable as “in-between”.  It originated in the very French-influenced and refined Turin in 1925 at the Caffé Mulassano in the Piazza Castello, as an alternative to English tea sandwiches.  The term “tramezzino” is said to have been coined by the author Gabriele D’Annunzio, a colourful figure if ever there was one.  This was during the early fascist era when Italians were being told to eschew foreign terms and words in favour of Italian ones and hence this neologism would have fitted in perfectly with the climate of the times.  Tramezzini are still very popular today and to be found all over Italy.  They take the edge off hunger as opposed to replacing a meal, and are often served with an aperitivo too or at parties.

Soft bread rolls, made with very white flour, are called “panino all’olio”; they are usually rather small and dainty and are also popular, for obvious reasons, with people who have trouble with chewing harder or crustier breads.  If, instead of a tramezzino, you want something more substantial, you will ask for a “panino”, which means “small bread”, linguistically akin to France’s “petit pain”.  It is a bread roll that can be stuffed with cured meats and/or cheeses of various kinds and will be a lot more filling than a tramezzino.  The roll will be called a “michetta” in Milan and a “rosetta” or a “schiacciata” in Rome.  The “ciriola” was famously Rome’s typical bread roll.  Another roll goes by the name of “turtle”, because the grooves on the top of the bread roll are indeed reminiscent of a turtle’s back (“la tartaruga”).  The panino can be either round or oblong.

panino bar

These days there are kiosks dotted about on certain main streets of Rome and its suburbs, catering to young people who have been out on the town and are absolutely starving by 4 a.m.  These kiosks go by the name of “paninari”.  In the early 1980s, however, “paninari” referred to the cohorts of a youth scene that was besotted with a consumerist and ‘fast’ lifestyle, in opposition to what Slowfood would propose.  The fact that this wealthy youth scene liked to identify itself by its designer clothes says a lot.  It started out in Milan, always the trendy and ahead-of-the-times city in Italy, but spread out to other cities in the north as well as to Rome.  They were called “paninari” because their preferred food of choice was a hamburger bun … they started out at Milan’s café called “Al Panino” in Piazza Liberty and then moved on to Italy’s now defunct hamburger and fast food chain called “Burghy” in Piazza San Babila.  In1986, the group Pet Shop Boys even wrote a song entitled “Paninaro”.  They have not been heard of since then, the paninari that is, and do not appear to be at all missed.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nation is headquartered in Rome.  Any Italian would see the logic of its logo, a sheaf of wheat, and of its motto — the Latin “Fiat Panis” … meaning, “let there be bread”.  The reverential attitude of Italians towards bread goes all the way back to the Romans who gave us the name for friendship: companionship.  The word derives from the Latin “cum pane” meaning “with bread”.  If you could break bread with someone, you could be his or her friend.  A “compagno” in Italian is a comrade, a friend, a partner.

Rather like the Martini television ad of a few years ago (“No Martini? No party!”), it seems fitting to conclude with: No bread? no company!  Being breadless is a lonely business in Italy …

P.S. If you have the time and inclination, take a look at this link for images of bread sculptures in Sardinia: https://it.pinterest.com/xperiensardinia/sardinia-best-bread-il-meglio-della-sardegna-pane/?lp=true, and …

At this video about how they (still) make a ‘decorative’ bread in Sicily to celebrate Saint Joseph (since my name is Josephine I think it’s only proper that I should quote him).  Incidentally, the bread thus produced used to be given to the poor as an act of charity and good will.

Merry May Gnocchi with Sausage and Asparagus

Asparagus spears have been saying Hello to me in vegetable stalls for quite a few weeks now.  I remembered a sauce a made a few years ago for a gnocchi dish, using sausages and asparagus.

Am reposting in case you might be tempted to try it.  I remember my kids and their friends thoroughly enjoying this Spring dish.

https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2011/04/12/if-you-cant-beat-them-eat-them-gnocchi-that-is/

And here is another post on how to make gnocchi:

https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2011/04/12/the-trouble-with-gnocchi/

 

 

Putting the Posh in Peas (and Chicken)

I don’t buy a lot of frozen food generally speaking, that is except for peas.  Most of the year I buy frozen peas.  When fresh peas are in season, however, it is such a joy to have them to cook with (not so much a joy having to shell them but that’s another story).  Anyway, I got hold of some fresh peas a few weeks ago, still in their pod, and enticed my mother who was staying with us into shelling them.  She did after all say she wanted to be of help … I was just doing the kind thing.

Today’s recipe is one I was inspired to try out from a rather posh recipe book with beautiful photos, truly artistic (once I find the book I can tell you the title).  The recipe in question seemed straightforward enough so off I trotted to get all the ingredients. By the time I got around to cooking, however, it was getting very late and I had to hurry things up a bit because people were getting hungry for their dinner – so in the end presentation was the least of my worries.  As you will see, the final plate looks a bit of a mess but I promise you it tasted fine, just fine.

When I teach people how to make fresh pasta, I tell them that it is a very forgiving recipe – it’s very hard to get it wrong.  “And,” I reassure them, “if things really do go downhill, at the end of the day we are talking about wasting some flour and eggs – we are not talking caviar!”  Pasta is not supposed to be ‘posh’, just ‘simple’ and delicious.  Delicious in its simplicity.  With today’s recipe, I am taking the opposite stance.  I am turning some basic, ‘simple’ ingredients, and wanting to present them as grander than they are.  And that’s because we all deserve a bit of grand now and then, don’t you agree?

INGREDIENTS: chicken breast, olive oil, paprika, fresh peas, onions, lemon, fresh mint leaves, butter, phyllo pastry

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In this ambitious photo (I’m standing on a stool in an attempt to get an overhead clean vista of the ingredients) you can see some chicken breast that I cut into similar-sized pieces, fresh peas, and a bowl containing olive oil, its peculiar colour having been brought about by the addition of liberal pinches of paprika.

2Sprinkle salt over the chicken.

3Transfer the chicken pieces to an oven dish, and dab the olive oil and paprika over both sides of the meat.

5Cover with clingfilm/saran wrap/gladwrap or whatever it is you call this marvellous invention that I love to hate.  I can never get it right, it always sticks to my fingers somehow.  So, yes, it looks a bit crumpled but I did manage to get it to be air-tight.  I then placed the chicken in the fridge for about one hour.

Prepare an ice bath – basically, just a bowl with cold water and ice cubes in it.  And then proceed to cook the fresh peas until they are done.  To be honest, I can’t remember how long that took – but longer than one would think.  Fresh peas take their time to reach the the point of perfection.

8Drain and quickly transfer the peas in the ice bath to cool down.  Drain again and separate the peas into two containers.

Okay?

And now on with cooking the chicken.

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12Cook the chicken on both sides until browned but not entirely cooked through.  Then place in the oven dish and continue cooking in a low-temperature oven for about 15-20 minutes (150°C let us say) until you think they are cooked (no raw chicken).

And now let us deal with the peas.

Add fresh mint leaves and a squirt of lemon juice to the peas in the glass bowl.

14Process, add a little bit of olive oil, a pinch of salt – and taste, taste, taste until you can pronounce what you taste finger-licking-good.  Set aside.

16Remember the other bowl of cooked peas?  Well, soften/cook some onions with butter in a saucepan, and then add the peas and some salt and pepper.  (Sorry, no photo to show you at this point).  Set aside.

A lot of setting aside, isn’t there.

17And then I had a brainwave.  I happened to have some phyllo pastry in the freezer that always gave me baleful looks when I opened the freezer door, as if to say: WHEN are you going to use me up?  The fateful moment had finally arrived … how about …?

18Slicing the phyllo pastry into ribbons and …

19Crisping it up (it only takes seconds) with some olive oil?

20Genius, right?  It was very oily because I was in a hurry, and I had to pat it down quite a bit with kitchen paper (and next time I might do this in the oven instead).  But it did indeed add a bit of crunch factor to the final presentation.

Time to plate up.

21Step one.  The pea mash.

22Step two: the unmashed peas.

23Step there: a shower of crispy phyllo pastry.

Presentation, repeat, not brilliant … but it tasted nice enough and that’s what counts.

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Lentil and Orange Salad

I  mentioned this salad in a post I wrote a few months back about a super Sicilian-styled lunch chez Stefania Barzini.  I asked her subsequently for the recipe and tried it out.  It wasn’t quite as good as what we ate at her house but still, good enough to want to repeat, which is always comforting.   I think it was the quality of the lentils I used that was the ‘problem’.  For this recipe, the smaller and longer-to-cook lentil, the better: it will retain its shape suitable for a salad.  Silly me, I should have used the famous lentils from the area of Castelluccio in Umbria, which are nearly always what I do use.  Anway, enough with the mortification and on with the recipe.

INGREDIENTS: lentils, olive oil, a few shallots, 1 clove of garlic, 2 oranges and 2 lemons (like the Bells of Saint Clement’s) plus another half lemon for the  final touch, fresh mint leaves and, if you like, and I do indeed like, a few chilli flakes

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Stew some shallots and 1 clove of garlic with some olive oil in a deep saucepan, until softened.  Over a low heat.

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Add the lentils.IMG_3239Cut one of the oranges and the two lemons in half and place them over the lentils as shown in the photo.

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Pour enough water to cover the lentils and turn the heat on.  Sprinkle some salt too.

IMG_3241I can’t remember how long I cooked the lentils – but basically we are cooking them until they are done!

IMG_3247Once cooked, drain the lentils, remove the citrus fruits and wait for the lentils to cool.  Transfer into a salad bowl, season with plenty of olive oil and salt, and then add the juice of half a lemon (or more if you prefer).  Taste, see if more olive oil is required – cooked lentils are guzzlers for oil.

IMG_3253I did not take a final photo of this dish – the photo you see here is just before I poured more olive oil  to anoint the salad.  As you can see, I  had peeled the other orange and cut it into slices, as well as adding fresh mint leaves.  I did not add chilli flakes to the salad bowl (fresh chilli would be even better) because not everyone likes the heat – I sprinkled some over my own helping naturally!  Very simple ingredients for a very tasty salad.

Sweetening up Red Peppers – Peperoni in Agrodolce

I love red peppers, capsicum, or ‘peperoni’ as they are called in Italian.  (In American English the word ‘peperoni’ somehow came to mean a kind of salami, a salami to garnish pizza; I don’t know how that came about, linguistically speaking.)

What I do know is that peppers come into their own when Summer months make them abound in Mediterranean climates – but for decades now these formerly warm-weather vegetables have been available all year round.  I normally eschew vegetables that are out of season but give in to the impulse now and then.  Even so, I like to think that I am ‘canny’ and know that a red pepper this time of year will taste nothing like its relatives a few months down the road.  In other words, the out-of-season pepper needs a little bit of help.  Hence today’s recipe, which includes sugar and raisins.

INGREDIENTS: Red peppers, onions, peppercorns, raisins, sugar, white wine vinegar, pine kernels, fresh mint leaves

0Begin by soaking the raisins in some hot water – or even some sweet wine or sherry if you prefer.

1Slice the onions, shower with olive oil and add a few peppercorns (I love whole pepper, it always imparts a subtle taste that somehow makes the dish taste better).

2Turn on the heat, over a low flame, cover and cook.  I checked my clock and I cooked the onions for 15 minutes.

 

While the onions were stewing away, I got on with cutting the red peppers and slicing them into a match-stick or finger shape.

4Dribble olive oil over these too and cook, again, over a low flame.

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Here are the onions after 15 minutes of cooking time.

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Add the onions to the peppers.

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Time to add salt – I like to use the French sel de Guérande salt in most of my cooking. I like its ‘sweetness’.

8Don’t by shy with your salt.  If you look closely at this photo, you can see that I sprinkled quite a lot – but believe me, the end result was not at all salty, on the contrary.  Salt is a miracle of an ingredient: it draws out the taste from the food in question.  No salt, no taste.

9I cooked the onions and peppers for another few minutes, until I liked the consistency of the peppers.  There is no ‘crunch’ to them.  They have to have a bit of ‘bite’ to them, naturally, otherwise they would lose their appeal.  But at the same time, this ‘bite’ is a silky mellow one.  Turn the heat off.

10This photo looks like something out of a space ship, very weird, I know.  But what it is, is a few teaspoons of sugar drowning in some white vinegar.

11I then transferred the sugar and vinegar to a teensy pot and brought it to the boil.  I deftly tasted the vinegar and it was far too ‘vinegary’ with the amount of sugar I had imagined would suffice, so had to had double !  And here is a rule that always obtains in the kitchen: always taste taste taste.  The vinegar is ready when it becomes pleasantly sweet.  The phone rang just at that point and off I went, glass of wine in hand (it was definitely “wine o’clock” by then) to put the world to rights with one of my sisters living in England.  Talk talk talk, sip, banter banter banter, sip, this that and the other, sip, oh my goodness it’s getting late must dash, final sip from the wine glass. Love you loads, bye bye.

12Back to the kitchen and using a wooden spoon I laid out the peppers and onions like a wreath.  The puddle you see in the middle are the juices of the peppers and onions, coupled with the olive oil.

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This was just before I poured the sugared vinegar into the puddle in the middle.  It looks like a glassful, wouldn’t you say?

14I turned the heat on again, and now added the drained raisins.   There is always something celebratory about raisins, I don’t why, don’t you think?

15Toasted a handful of pine kernels (be careful when doing so, they are ‘treacherous’, they can burn in an instant, so do keep a beady eye on them).

16And voilà, ta daaa ! The finished dish.  Switch the heat off.  And serve at room temperature.

I actually served it the following day and it was much appreciated I am glad to say.

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Add fresh mint leaves just before serving.  The mint and sugar vinegariness combine beautifully with the caramelised onions and the slowly stewed peppers.

18And the olive oil, naturally, does its part too.  As you can see, the oil drops to the bottom of the dish together with the juices and the person can choose just how much to drizzle over the veggies.  If, like me, you can’t get enough of Italian bread and adore the naughty ‘thing’ of mopping up a sauce with morsels of said bread (etiquette says it’s a no-no but we all do it, it’s called “fare la scarpetta” – making a little shoe), this dish could be truly dangerous.

Enjoy!

P.S. Read all about “making the shoe” in the post I wrote a while ago on the subject:

https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2010/12/21/don’t-poo-poo-the-shoe/

 

 

Prelude to a Recipe : Nonno’s Birthday Bonanza (Pasta with Coda alla Vaccinara Sauce)

 

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My mother in law Maria hails from a small hilltop town in the Marche called Monterubbiano.

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When my father in law retired, he bought a house there which became the Summer Holiday go-to venue for me and my husband and our kids for several years in succession.

There comes a point in children’s lives when they feel it’s no longer ‘cool’ to spend holidays with their parents and sure enough, that happened with us too.  Even so, Monterubbiano maintains an iconic status in the vault of family memories, and always will do.  So many outdoor dinners, friends and family gatherings, laughter and silliness and looking forward to future frolicking.

My in-laws leave Rome some time in May and stay in Monterubbiano until early September, sometimes very late August when the weather there can change sooner than it does in sunny Rome.  Monterubbiano can get very ‘foggy’ in no time at all, even during the Summer, not to mention unseasonably chilly.   It is close to a mountain range, after all.

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Il fumo della PioggiaThe view from our bedroom early one September morning … foggy.  When our daughter was little she used to call it “il fumo della pioggia”, the smoke of the rain.

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Monterubbiano’s signature food dish is the “tagliatelle fritte”.  These are fettuccine cooked and seasoned with a bechamel and cheese sauce, then shaped into a ball, breaded and fried.  They are served with a tomato sauce.  One ball per person is enough, let me tell you, they are indeed very ‘rich’ !

My husband and I adore the sea and there was no way we would have spent so many weeks in Monterubbiano, Summer after Summer, if it wasn’t within easy access to the sea.  It is a twenty minute drive away from the town of Porto San Giorgio.  An Italian singer called Piero Focaccia came out with a song in 1963 that says, “For this year, don’t change, stick to the same beach, to the same sea, and come back to me” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qvaCyff7Jn4).  This attachment to “sameness” is a concept that non-Italians will perhaps find difficult to appreciate but is a way of life that is deeply imbedded in the culture (or was rather, things change, even in Italy.)  When my daugher was just one year old, we sought a beach that was relatively “quiet” and off the beaten track, not too crowded etc.  When I say beach, I mean a beach with with the usual frills and accommodation that are a staple in Italy: sun beds, sun umbrella, drinks and a loo/rest room (facilities that make life very civilised to my mind).  They call them “chalets” there, just as one has chalets up in the mountains.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, we espied one of these chalets just opposite a convent and that did it for us. Some of these chalets can be very ‘cool’ places for young people to throng about, as they strut their stuff and put music on and generally do what young people enjoying life do: make a lot of noise, laughing and joking, smoking and canoodling.  We presumed that no young person worth his or her salt would be seen dead within walking distance of a convent and we were right.  This was a family place, with not just parents but grandparents too.   The gamut of generations ran from nappies to bikinis to sun-dresses and included a forgiving attitude towards bulge, fleshy flab, deeply lined facial expressions, paunches, stretch marks, and many a leg heavily laden with varicose veins. Perfect.

It is still called “Bagni Giuliana”. The owners, husband Cavicchi and wife Giuliana, were so accommodating and pleasant and kind that we returned to them the following year.  And the one after that. And then the one after that one too. In other words, we never changed our chalet and the writer of that song would be proud of us.  We are welcomed like family when we return, they have literally seen our children (and their friends when they came with us) grow up.  And we, unfortunately, have seen Mum and Dad die, although we are pleased that their two daughters continue to run the place (which was thoroughly modernised about 20 years ago).  The pull of the familiar can never be underestimated.

Anyway, as life cracks on for my mother in law, her body has begun to show cracks of its own.  Two knee replacement operations make it hard for her to walk properly now but the real reason for this unsteadiness is that Alzheimer’s started its unwelcome inroads on her health.  She is ever more forgetful now, and often gets confused, or tells a story over and over again.  Fortunately, she continues to be a good story teller, and her innate kindness, sense of wonderment and impish naughtiness (her motto? “God save us from the virtuous” – Dio ci salvi dai virtuosi … ) continue to attract young people to her.  She may not have been the best home cook in the world but she certainly was a jolly good one and that’s where the sadness sets in.  Basically, she cooks no more, and I know that my father in law suffers for this.  Not that he would ever complain, he is too proud.  That generation never would – their complaints are lodged in other fields of human interaction.  He makes do, buying nice cheeses and cold cuts, and making a basic pasta for himself.  Or buying ready-cooked veggies and  rotisserie chicken.  He won’t die of hunger, oh no.  But he, like me!, lives for his food, for a decent meal and it must hurt so much not to be able to enjoy a ‘decent’ home cooked meal on a daily basis.  Especially since he spent all his life with his wife making him one.

Dear Reader, I can’t tell you what pleasure it was for me to cook a decent meal for him when we went to visit them last Summer in Monterubbiano.  It gives me so much satisfaction, the kind that only another home cook will understand.  It’s all about making people happy, even if a grunt is all you’ll get out of them on occasion.  It’s about the joy of seeing someone reach out for another helping, just a small one, and then another, again – just a small one.  Of seeing them studiously mop up the sauce on their plates with a bit of bread. Oh hearing them sigh and exclaim that they couldn’t possibly eat another thing, they’ve eaten so much already (true, very true). And then seeing them fall asleep, head nodding, on the sofa as they pretend to watch a bit of telly afterwards.   Of their face when you ‘force’ leftovers on them to take home in batches of plastic containers that you’ll never see again (who cares!).  Eating is all about evanescence.  A lot of work and trouble growing/making food and then pouff! it’s gone in a few moments in the eating.  The pleasure principle of it all.  A huge big fat Zen lesson there, surely?

Anyway, last Summer we visited Maria and Giose on a number of occasions, all of them poignant for the above and other reasons.  One of Maria’s best friends there, Liliana, is a brilliant cook and organises mega dinners for the town al fresco.  All the proceeds go towards the upkeep of the local football team.  If you have the time, I’d like for you to watch a wee video I took of a dinner she organised.  Plastic plates and plonk for wine, but really good food I tell you!  All for the magic price of Eu 10 per person.  With a local live band.  The guy playing the trumpet? Enzo.  Always cracking jokes.  He is the retired owner of the town’s only grocery shop and played a surprise Serenade for me and my husband the year we got married with a bunch of other musicians at around 2 a.m.  The much appreciated serenading was followed up by sandwiches and jugs of wine and hearty snacks all organized by my in laws.  The lady with the walking stick is my mother in law, Maria, being escorted by my husband, her son, Pino.

 

We returned one last time early in September, in time to celebrate my father in law’s birthday.

My birthday present to him?

Lots and lots of sauce for making pasta.  And the sauce in question was made from the Coda alla Vaccinara recipe.  I’ll write about it in the very next blog.

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