How to Hype Frozen Tripe – Fry It!

What got into me that day? Spoken aloud with much groaning and aaargh-ing and virtual hair pulling exasperation.   Why, why oh why did I decide to defrost the stand-alone freezer on my balcony?  

And no, it was not a rhetorical question. I really did ponder what prompted me to undertake such an ill advised course of action when, really – really, really, really – all I wanted to do was hunker down on the sofa, enveloped by a comforting plaid, whilst sipping a cup of pukka loose-leaf tea and watch a good old-fashioned film or series on TV.  That is: chill out, relax, not think, be mentally (and very lazily) transported to la la land. Anything but the consciousness of being in the present, the mantra of ‘be here now’. I didn’t like ‘now’.  I wanted to escape. This was a few weeks ago, when it was still nippy.

Did the Covid lockdown have anything to do with it?  A freezer full of food and leftovers is not to be scoffed at under any circumstances but especially so when thoughts on survival and Maslow’s pyramid start to stare at us in the eye. Clothes for one’s body. Shelter from the elements. A roof over one’s head. Enough food and water. Vital connexions to the outer world via telephone calls, the internet and zoom meetings (the so-called ‘veetings’, such an ugly word for a God-send of an invention).  One becomes perforce more ‘aware’.   Emotions see-saw between anxiety and gratefulness.  Between irritation and peacefulness.  Between boredom and inspiration.  Alternating between escapism and reality checks.

Food waste, something I always try to avoid in any case, became a real issue. And I can immodestly pat myself on on my back for being good at combining both thrifty/homey productions that were still pleasing, together with naughty-but-nice meals that indulged our more decadent yearnings at table.  Variety, after all as we all know, is the spice of life.

On most days I’m as happy as a puppy when it comes to thinking about food and cooking the meal. It’s the rest of the overall food-eat equation that can be tiresome (the shopping, the schlepping, the queues, the storing, the cleaning, the prepping, the washing up etc).  I knew trouble was encroaching when the freezer showed signs, owing to all the untidily placed stuff inside, of not shutting properly. I solved the problem by placing a couple of plant pots on it to keep the lid down (it worked).  Fyi, the photo below was taken a few days ago.  The balcony and the freezer were a different story back then.

freezer

“It’s just temporary, I’ll deal with it tomorrow,” I said to myself, almost believing that I would.  But ‘temporary’ turned into tomorrow never comes.  Please tell me I’m not the only one who is gripped by procrastination?  After a while, the niggling feeling that had weaseled its way in the hinterland of my recall began to migrate upwards into the nakedness of conscious thinking, until I had to face up to facts.  I just DID NOT WANT TO defrost the freezer. So much work, sigh.

What was it that finally managed to split the straitjacket of my indolence? Looking back, I think it might have been a wan desire on my part, counter-intuitively enough, to elude reality, to pretend that Covid had not forced us into lockdown or was causing unnecessary deaths, strife and stress.  Sometimes, ‘realistic’ does not inspire, it just blocks.  Sometimes, the game of ‘let’s pretend’ can, instead, act as a stimulant.  After all, it’s what children do all the time.  So I made up a cock-and-bull story that I was about to prepare a feast for loved ones based on what the freezer held.  A culinary challenge, ha ha, so to speak.  Well.  That feast in particular will have to wait BUT, as a reward for yours truly, a new recipe did come out of all that hard work.  I am not sure I am going to make this recipe often but whenever I do, I shall feel almost saintly remembering how creatively I managed to waste-not on that fateful freezer-defrosting day during lockdown.

What I found in the bottomless depths of the freezer was a container full of tripe cooked the Roman way, that is served up with freshly grated pecorino cheese and mint.  Delicious.  That’s if you like tripe which I didn’t until about ten years ago.  My mother used to make it for my husband and he always raved about it.   I asked her for the recipe, good little wife that I am.  If you want the recipe, please refer the the post preceeding this one.

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My father-in-law is also very partial to tripe and so he got a share of this bounty; he and my mother-in-law live in the same block of flats as us and as we are their caretakers, we see them on a daily basis.  My mother lives in Grottaferrata, about three kilometers from Frascati.  She is going to turn 94, he 91 and my mother-in-law 85 this year.  You can imagine their anguish upon keeping up with the daily news, and the death toll of the elderly in care homes.  Looking after old people is not all fun and games but we do try to inject some irreverent humour into our interactions with them, which might strike some as callous. “What? you’re still alive?” my husband will say to my mother (in a very loud voice too because she has become increasingly hard of hearing) when he answers her call.  And please don’t worry, she gives back as good as she gets; if anything it’s this kind of humour that keeps her going.  She likes to say that she ‘killed off’ two husbands and that had she married a third time, she was sure she would have killed that unsuspecting husband too.  Another of her favourites is, “amarsi sempre, sposarsi mai” – which translates into “it’s always a good thing to love but never to get married”.  My father-in-law, instead, is what you’d call ‘quiet’.  Very quiet.  Monosyllabic even.  When things go wrong, he is never surprised, he is that kind of a ‘realist’.  And yet, even he had to give in to ‘surprise’ when his wife was diagnosed with Alzheimers.  It’s just cruel, cruel, cruel, is all I can comment. 

All this to say that it can’t be easy for our old folk, no, not at all.   And, likewise, not easy for us their children.  There are good days, of course, and not so good, mostly the latter.  So … yet again, food to the rescue!   Eating food they like seems to be one very good way of making life tolerable.  My mother has become a little ‘picky’ in her food choices but as for my father-in-law: food is of utmost comfort and he sits down to his two square meals every day, with wine to accompany both.  Covid has in no way affected his appetite, bless him.  So I knew he would appreciate a helping of trippa alla romana.  But what about the rest?

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See this?  It’s a bowl containing a flour-and-egg batter.  Batter and roughly chopped mint and parsley.  So my invention of the day was: use some of the previously cooked tripe to make: fried tripe!

3Here I am frying it in batches.

4It looks a bit like fried squid.

0Sprinkle of salt and pecorino and Bob’s your uncle.

I realise that tripe is not for everyone, fair enough.  But if you should have any left over, why not fry some in batter as an amuse-bouche?  You know me, the fried food fanatic (FFF)

On Matters of Batter and Fried Chicken

I think that brain matter, likewise, has to muscle into the preparation of this recipe.

I don’t know about you but my memory is starting to play up in certain spheres.  I used to be blessed with a very fine memory, one that came in most useful during the final weeks preceding examinations; I was an adept swotter with a quasi OCD approach to note-and-rote learning, with close to photographic results.  But there is another kind of memory that nearly always comes to my aid.  To this day, friends and family will remark on how extraordinary it is that I can still remember a series of events, or even the day of the week something happened.  Well that, instead, I attribute to a very ordinary practice of logical sequencing, linking or deduction: putting two and two together, as it were.  “How on earth do you remember that it was a Tuesday?” for instance, someone will ask.  And I will answer, “Well, because I used to go to gymn classes on Tuedays, that’s how.”  Nothing Sherlock Holmes about this, just plain ol’ Watson.

I did write a diary for a while, starting in my teens at boarding school.  And one can’t deny that a diary involves some kind of  memory function.  Goodness knows what I wanted to record, to save for remembrance.  I suppose it was a way of keeping time, of making sense of the uneventful progressing of the days.  People sometimes wonder whether I had a hard time at boarding school and I answer no: in an age when it is all too easy to fingerpoint at horrid priests and nuns for the maltreatment of their pupils, I must attest to our nuns being actually very nice on the whole.  But life at boarding school was hardly exciting, let’s face it, so my diary was mostly the jotting down of desultory homework requirements, disappointing match results of games played, or an unhoped for change in lunch menu; commenting on a spat between best friends or, yes!, the break-up even of best friends; the changes in mood due to an imminent menstrual period (we used to call it the ‘curse’) and the excitement of someone buying a new l.p. record.  To this day I cannot bear certain songs (John Lennon’s Imagine for one) because we used to play such records to death, over and over again in the space of a few hours.

And I was always ‘pining’.  Oh what a piner I was!  Longing, awaiting, yearning for, moping, hankering after, languishing for, craving … you get the picture.  I suppose it’s what many young girls feel while growing up?  I can recognise much of myself in Anne Frank’s diary – being able to talk to yourself is a way of trying to make sense of things, of giving words to a troubling feeling, it can soothe restlessness, it can stimulate consciousness.  There is a confessional side to writing a diary, an intimacy of ‘sharing’ that one only usually does with loved and trusted confidantes.  What is life all about?  Who can I consult?  I did French for ‘A’ level and was totally taken by the whole existentialist outlook – with the underlying agnosticism or indeed Godlessness somehow not interfering whatsoever with my catholic religion.  I asked hard questions at times, and I fell in love with Camus (never liked Sartre, horrid toad of a man, was not surprised later in life to discover that he used to require his girlfriend to pimp underage girls for him).  One of the set books was Camus’s The Plague and ouff, how ironic that it should come to mind in this Spring of 2020.  In the mid-seventies, his book could be read as a metaphor for the plague of recurring war (the Vietnam war was still going on), and as a generation we were indeed worried about the possibility of a nuclear war. And here we are – at the very start of the third decade of the 21st century, witnessing a very real virus-driven outbreak, who would have thought … who could have thought?  Camus, like all good things, never goes out of fashion.

One thing I did know for sure: I wanted to ‘live’ and not merely ‘exist’.  And yes, laugh if you will, but that desire is with me still.  My idea of ‘living’ might not be yours, of course – travelling and travel of the mind, and friends and family are its four pillars.  To each their own, as they say, and bringing life into this world, having children, has been my most memorable ‘achievement’, that which made me feel ‘alive’ as no other experience had ever previously done.  Can it be altogether coincidental, I am asking myself as I write, that I began a blog round about the time I was dealing with the empty nest syndrome? (One child had already left home, and the other was about to.)  I am not sure I would have started keeping a diary if I hadn’t gone to boarding school.  Then, despite beloved friends with whom I am still close more than forty years later, it was my family I missed the most, my parents, my sisters, even our dog.  The diary helped me cope with what was missing.  And I can only surmise that the blog has served a similar purpose, this time the people missed being my children.  And I am still asking hard questions.  If you think about it, a blog is a bit like a diary, no? It’s about food all right but, also, food for thought.

Now that I’ve gone off at a tangent let me try to get back to the recipe and why I want to have it carved in blog-stone.

The main reason is that, fried chicken never goes out of fashion.  And it requires a good batter.  The second reason has to do with the slings and arrows of a failing memory.  I want to get this recipe down pat, once and for all.

I have made chicken fried in batter at least a dozen times, and each time it’s been a bit different.   The first attempt was based on a Nigella episode where I learned the crafty art of a) pre cooking the chicken in milk and b) shaking the chicken bits in a plastic bag filled with flour (or was it breadcrumbs, mmm?) to coat them – very clever trick indeed.  Successive attempts always included egg somewhere in the recipe but it wasn’t until two years ago that I made a batter to coat the chicken, as opposed to just flour and breadcrumbs.  And that was because my mother was harping on and on about how wonderful (“out of this world” according to her) our cook in Bangladesh’s fried chicken was.  And could I try and replicate it?  Which I dutifully and gastronomically did to general acclaim.  Jolly good.  Except, now, I can’t remember what I did!

I read quite a few food blogs and found myself being intrigued about fried chicken recipes.  Some amount of marinading is always called for.  A magical ingredient known as buttermilk (which we can’t get here in Italy) is presented as to a cut above  yogurt.  Seasoning ranges from family secrets to the ubiquitous salt, pepper and paprika.  Some opt for chopped onion, others for dried garlic.  Fresh herbs? Dry herbs?  So much to consider, so many choices.  The following are my conclusions, which I am most happy to reconsider based on any new information coming my way.

RECIPE and TIPS

Marinading – I don’t know what all the fuss is about.  Chicken is tender, to me it doesn’t need marinading or tenderising.  The tastiness comes from the spices you are going to add to the batter, not the marinade.  So I give this step a miss.  Shoot me.

Pre-Cooking the chicken: well done Nigella, as I already said.  In this version, however, instead of simmering the chicken pieces in milk, I steamed them.  It took about half an hour. Easy enough to do and one less ingredient to add to the list.  The reason for pre-cooking is kind of obvious: when it comes to frying the chicken, it will take less time and you don’t have to worry about eating semi-raw chicken.  All you have to be worried about is getting the batter to turn crisp.  Note to self for next time: rub a little olive oil over the chicken parts and add some salt.  I am sure this will enhance the overall taste.

Batter Ingredients:

(1)Eggs – egg whites only.  There is a scientific (chemistry) reason why we should eschew the egg yolk.  I think it has something to do with the crisp factor.  I confess, I read about it but have forgotten why.

(2)Alcohol – I used grappa, you could use vodka or some other strong alcoholic drink (not wine and nothing sweet of course).  Apparently, at high heat (and frying does require high heat), the alcohol evaporates and makes the batter extra crisp.  We are talking about tablespoons of alcohol, not great big mugfulls!

(3a)Flours for the batter:  both ordinary flour and corn flour/starch

(3b) Plain flour for coating the chicken pieces before immersing them in the batter; for flavouring, read below.

(4)Breadcrumbs: optional

(5a)Dry spices and/or herbs: you choose what you like … paprika, allpice, parsley, thyme, rosemary – not mint or marjoram I shouldn’t think.  Indeed, you don’t have to add any spices if you don’t want to.  But salt and pepper, yes. Especially salt.  No salt, no taste.

(5b) Fresh herbs: parsley, chives, dill, fresh coriander (even teensy amount of sage) finely chopped – but if so, add them to the batter only at the end, just before you fry the chicken.

(6)Fresh stuff: by ‘stuff’ I mean onion and garlic.  Dry garlic is heaven sent and is what I used. I did use chopped onions on one occasion and it was a tad overwhelming – but that is a matter of personal taste.  I suppose spring onions might be a good alternative?  Whatever stuff you choose to include ‘fresh’, make sure you add it to the batter ONLY at the last minute.  Otherwise it will dilute it.

(7a)Tomato paste – to add colour and a hint of acidity.

OR

(7b)Grated lemon zest – to add freshness, but just a touch. If  you are after a lemony fried chicken drumstick, then by all means add to your heart’s content.

(8)Slurry: there used to be an ad on British television about Murray Mints and the line was, “Never hurry a Murray, it’s far too good to hurry”.  So, mutatis mutandis, it’s a good idea to take your time to make a proper slurry.  Sounds awful, somehow, doesn’t it, conjuring up something slimy.  The slurry basically IS the batter, just not a nice name for it.  It will include beaten egg whites (I used three) diluted with cold water (you could use beer I suppose?) to which you will then add all the other ingredients mentioned above.  The ratio of flours is 30 percent corn starch, 70 plain white flour, but you could even do 50/50 why not.  The final consistency has to be fairly thick.  Go ahead – taste it.  You might want to add a je ne sais quoi to make it just right. Last: it’s not a bad idea to cool the batter in the fridge.  A cold batter will ‘react’ with the hot oil for a crispier result.

(9)Frying oil: groundnut/peanut oil has a good smoke point.

PROCEDURE/METHOD – WHAT TO DO, IN OTHER WORDS, STEP BY STEP

(1)Coat the chicken pieces with olive oil, season and then steam for about half an hour or until ready.  Remove from the pan and allow to cool completely.

(2)While the chicken is cooking, you can prepare the slurry/batter and put it in the fridge.  .

(3)Dredge the cooled-down chicken pieces in a bowl full of seasoned flour (3b above).  Alternatively, place this flour in a large plastic bag, slip the chicken pieces into the bag and shake it until they are evenly coated.

(4a) Place the floured chicken pieces on a rack or large plate, awaiting to be dunked in the batter before being fried.
(4b)Alternatively, place the chicken pieces in a bowl large enough to hold them, pour the batter over them so that it covers them completely, seal with clingfilm and put in the fridge until the next day.  It’s okay for the batter to be cold but …but fridge-cold chicken will take longer to cook.  Hence, it’s a good idea to remove the chicken from the fridge-cold batter at least one hour before frying.

(5)Heat the oil.  It’s a good idea to use a deep frying pan.  If you have one, even a Dutch oven works very well.  When the oil is ready to receive the chicken (at around 180°C), first dunk each piece of chicken in the batter and proceed with frying in sensible batches (don’t fry them all at once).

SERVE.

 

Fried chicken makes everyone happy, it is festive.  People of all ages like it, it is democratic, it can be eaten with one’s fingers.  Fried chicken is a treat.

And, as we all know, fried chicken tastes fab eaten cold the next day.  Great for a picnic!  Remember Grace Kelly and Cary Grant in the picnic scene in To Catch a Thief ?  Who says fried chicken can’t be sultry and sexy!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3EN_tYpSpqc&list=PL9AFxNdm-mwMpBs3FlKwBKPC51QGT2Vu8&index=2

Here are some photos from my latest batch, cooked last Saturday and shared with my parents-in-law.  There is something naughty about fried foods, isn’t there, and I wanted my in-laws to live a little – heartburn be damned.

UQXP5354Here are the cooked, cooled chicken pieces coated with spiced-up flour.

WLRP7294Here is one chicken piece about to be coated in the batter.  Notice how slightly ‘pink’ it is in colour.  That’s because of the tomato paste in the batter.

EYHC4361Frying away …

QZFY4900Just out of the frying pan and onto a white carpet of kitchen paper.

IMG_7604And this is one piece that got gobbled up by me before dinner.  After I had sprinkled a little bit of salt over it.   We had fried chips for dinner too.  And home-made mayonnaise but not home-made ketchup.

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We also had the above stuffed courgette blossoms fried in a different batter.  Saturday night was definitely fried-food night!  (Although in all fairness I did steam the asparagus.)

POST SCRIPTUM

There were leftovers next day and we enjoyed those cold.  I brought some over to my mother a day after that.  And that’s when she told me she had notes for the fried chicken recipe of our cook in Bangladesh!  The one she always raved about.  Odd that she hadn’t mentioned she had the recipe before.  It didn’t take her long to find the recipe notes, written on a sheet of paper bearing the letterhead of the company my stepfather used to work for.  IMG_7621I must say looking at that letterhead really threw me back … decades ! Talk about bittersweet memories.  Anyway, our cook was called Toka.   Toka’s Fried Chicken might well  be the title of another post from me in the not too distant future.

 

 

Montalbano, Sicily and Food Inspiration

I am not much of a TV viewer on the whole but I can become obsessed with the odd TV series.  One such obsession turns out to be the Sicilian sleuth “Commissario Montalbano” series, set in Sicily.  My husband and I even bought DVDs of the programme.  Recently, the Italian state television was showing a few re-runs and we concurred that the older episodes were a lot better than the recent ones.  Every Montalbano story features some kind of Sicilian food to drool over and I was inspired to try out a few dishes – beginnig with the Pasta Ncasciata that takes forever-and-a-day to make.  But then, with the lockdown, there is very little excuse as regards availability of time on our hands. (https://frascaticookingthatsamore.wordpress.com/2018/08/18/pasta-ncasciata-a-sicilian-medley-of-marvellous-mixture/)

In July of 2014, our mother treated the whole family (three daughters, their husbands and grandchildren) to a memorable holiday in South-East Sicily, renting a va va voom property with a swimming pool very close to the town of Scicli.

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The above photo is a view of Scicli from the rental villa.  It was holiday we still rave about … I fell in love with Sicily and would love to go back.  In the  meantime, I have memories.  Here, I’d like to share a post from my older blog about a day spent in Punta Secca, where a lot of the Montalbano filming took place.

Montalbano Land and “Enzo a Mare”

 

During the Autumn of 2002, I signed up for a course of cooking classes that were held on a Tuesday evening and happened to coincide with the TV showing of the popular Inspector Montalbano series.  I took a look just now and apparently it was already in its Fourth Edition by then –  but that was the first I had ever heard of the TV series and of course missed it all.  Shame on me for never having read Camilleri’s books on which the series was based.  I was grateful it was showing, however, because my husband and two children seemed to enjoy it a lot and didn’t mind my absence (I hasten to add that I always cooked dinner for them before going).  Years later, I got to view and enjoy some of these episodes myself on DVD … and now, somehow, they hold a special symbolic meaning for me, reminding me of a very happy, energetic and lighthearted phase in our nuclear family’s life.

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More recently, just last month in fact, an extended-family holiday in Sicily saw us residing within driving distance of Punta Secca, in the province of Ragusa.  Our daughter who is a great fan of the Montalbano series said that there was no way she was going to give  ‘Marinella’ a miss.  Punta Secca is the real name for the fictional Marinella, the small town with Montalbano’s house and large terrace overlooking the sea.  The town with the big white lighthouse.  Our daughter got quite excited at the prospect of seeing them ‘in real life’.  I am apt to turn up my nose at touristy tours that rely on indulging the voyeur in us but this time I was game. And besides, I just love the sea.

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And I also love me a long hot summer … it makes swimming all the more enjoyable.  This year the Italian summer has been more like monsoon downpour territory and unseasonably cold to boot.  What is the point of a wet, cold Italian summer?  We were fortunately spared the worst down in Sicily but it wasn’t exactly hot … the temperature on average being in the region of 28°C.  Picture my joy then as the day we chose to visit Punta Secca was gloriously sunny and even, almost, ‘hot’ (i.e. over 30°C) ! Clear blue skies! Bliss.

3This is the bay where Montalbano likes to take a swim.4Nothing trendy about it.  Here I am, taking a shot veering to the right of the bay.5And here am I, looking to the left of the bay.  And there in the distance … is ‘the’ terrace that so entrances Inspector Montalbano and his viewers, sporting a white beach umbrella. If you enjoy a spot of visual play, you will notice that the beach umbrella looks a bit like a ‘moustache’, set against the grey building whose windows look like ‘eyes’ !6A closer shot of the terrace – or is it a balcony? never mind.  A man sitting there under the beach umbrella.  Wonder who he is …7Beyond the balcony and in the distance is the … white lighthouse.  ‘The’ lighthouse that appears at the programme’s signature trailer at the beginning of each episode:

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9M0re views of Montalbano’s house.10I can’t explain it but the atmosphere was just so energising and restful at the same time.   There was direct synergy at work between the physical and the emotional.  The intensity of the blue of the sky and two-tones of the sea were mesmerising.  The air too tasted of ‘salt’ … iodine. On days such as these, you feel you want to live forever. 11It was coming up to lunch time and I was already looking forward to having a swim afterwards …1213And then … just beyond the lighthouse ….14What should we espy in the distance but ‘the’ beach-hut restaurant where Montalbano likes to eat!15Enzo a Mare!1617Is that a sight for sore eyes or what?1819We were just all so relaxed and happy and looking forward to our lunch … Normally I snap photos left, right and centre of the food being served but this time, somehow, I was so ‘in the now’ that I didn’t !

Which is a shame because it was all delicious.  I ordered a plate of linguine with a swordfish ragout sauce.  I am not a great lover of swordfish but I thought I would be adventurous and try something new.  I am so glad I did … it was possibly the best dish I ate throughout our whole week’s stay in Sicily.

Everthing about Enzo a Mare is great … even the lamps made out of baskets!

2122And here is Nuniza, the chef.  I asked her for the recipe and if memory serves me well it goes something like this.

LINGUINIE WITH SWORDFISH

Pan fry a little garlic in some olive oil, to which you must also add: a small amount of lemon zest, salt-dried capers, olives and fresh mint leaves.  Add the swordfish, diced.  Cook for the briefest of time (1 minute say) and then splash a little balsamic vinegar in the mix. Turn up the heat and toss the pan.  Add tomato sauce and cook for about 10 minutes.  When serving the linguine sprinkle some Sicilian oregano around the rim of the dish.  Truly more-ish!

20We said arrivederci to this corner of paradise and went to lie down on the sand … Some time later I ventured back to Montalbano’s bay and waded in as far as my thighs.  The water was freezing and I was too much of a wuss to manage to dive in, as I would have liked, and enjoy a swim à la Montalbano.  Ah well … next time.


24On our way back to the car, later in the evening, I espied this lady reading decorously on her terrace within spitting distance of Montalbano’s house.  I was very much intrigued by her … and by her flowers on the terrace and the greenery climbing all over the facade of her house.25Another lady of ‘a certain age’ and beautifully dressed walked up to the front door and rang the bell.  The lady who was reading heard it and got up and peeped over the rails of the terrace.  Her face broke into a lovely smile as she recognised her friend.  “Ciao cara,” she said.  She beckoned for her to come up, to join her.  “Passa di qua,” she told her.  And her friend made her way into the house not by the front door, no, but by a large open French window (or whatever these things are called) on the ground floor.  I felt as if I were trespassing so I didn’t take any photos.  It was an amazing vignette of Sicilian life to ‘catch’ … so pleasant, so unhurried, so civilised.  I wonder who these lovely ladies are …

Punta Secca (Santa Croce Camerina) and Enzo a Mare.  Good company, glorious food, the sea … what more could I have asked for?

Frozen Fish Supper during Lockdown

The menu for supper was a mixture of fresh and frozen – the  veggies fresh and the fish frozen.  The fresh ingredients fell into two categories:

(1)Bog-Standard ingredients that are always so helpful when cooking all kinds of recipes: extra virgin olive oil, garlic, parsely, chilli, lemon and lime

(2)Standard ingredients: Potatoes, Lettuce, fennel, Red pepper, chestnut mushrooms, home-made mayonnaise (if you don’t want to make your own mayo, you could always buy some)

Something slightly different? Fresh horse radish.  Not always easy to find here in Frascati, indeed the one I used came from England when my sister came to visit last January and I froze some.

The frozen ingredients were: salmon fillets and octopus (polpo in Italian).

1So what you see here are some chestnut buttons on the left, boiled potatoes left to cool in a colander, a jar containing home-made  mayonnaise, the defrosted salmon fillets with a solitary half lime on the plate, and the cooked octopus on the right.

OCTOPUS: I used a pressure cooker to cook the squid, adding one inch of water and half a lemon.  FYI re octopus: even if you buy it fresh, always a good idea to freeze it for about an hour before cooking.  The flesh always ends up being tender that way.  For this reason, I hardly ever buy fresh octopus any more.

POTATO AND OCTOPUS SALAD: Boil the potatoes, allow to cool.  Then season them with plenty of good quality olive oil and chopped parsely.  Salt too, of course. Cook the octopus.  Allow to cool.  Season with olive oil and salt.

23 Place the potatoes and octopus, all nicely cut up, in a serving dish or salad bowl.  I added a twist of pepper to this salad on my dish when I served myself.  I love the scent of freshly milled pepper.  FYI: pepper is very good for you, combats all kinds of germs and nasties.

06Season the char-griddled pepper with olive oil, salt and a few drops of lemon juice. Parsely too, if you like it.  Or even mint.

5I cooked the button mushrooms in this pan with: garlic, fresh chilli and some horse radish.

7The salad was a no brainer:

4Lettuce, fennel and some rocket leaves (arugula).  We dressed it olive oil and lemon juice just before serving.

And then I got on with the salmon last.  Salmon shouldn’t be cooked for too long at the best of times – even less so when defrosted.

8I used the same pan in which I’d cooked the mushrooms, couldnt’ be bothered to get another one.  I just added some more horse radish.

9I also added lemon zest and half a lime.  It’s a bit difficult to spot the lemon slices but they were there, I assure you (look to the left of the lime).

10I cooked the fillets over a strong heat and flipped them over only once and turned the heat off.  By the then the salmon had virtually cooked through.  Salt and pepper, yes.

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12On the plate … served with mayonnaise.

Except for the octopus which I realise might sound ‘exotic’ to some outside of Italy and Greece, all these ingredients are not difficult to source.  The recipes are easy and require no cheffy skills.  If there is one take-away from today’s post it’s the inclusion of lemon and lime wedges in the cooking pan.  They jazz things up.  And you end up with a mid-week dinner that seems more special than the sum of its parts.  This to me is the essence of home cooking.  I hope I’ve inspired you?

Pearl Barley instead of Risotto – Orzotto alla Mantovana

I hope people who celebrate Judeo-Christian festivities are holding up?   Hannukah and Christmas have a way of grinding us down as well as buoying as up.  So much preparation and craziness before the celebrations themselves, followed by …. so much eating and drinking (AND cleaning up afterwards, let’s not forget).  Anyway, it just dawned on me that a lot of squash and pumpkin is available this time of year and that one could put it to good use not just for a risotto but also for a …. for something similar, using barley instead of rice.  It’s called “orzotto” and is jolly good.  I made one a few years ago and am reposting the recipe because only three people read that post back then; who knows, maybe some of you might be interested in making one now?  Anyway, you know the drill by now.  I start off a post with a fair amount of bla bla.  So if you want to skip that by all means do.  Go straight to where it reads “ingredients”.

https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2013/10/02/pumpkin-barley-orzotto-not-risotto-orzotto-alla-mantovana/

Pumpkin Barley Orzotto (not Risotto) – Orzotto alla Mantovana

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Invited to an inauguration for future cooking classes in a fine kitchen-ware shop called “Ottagoni” in  Rome’s Trastevere area last week …..

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I espied a lone-looking chef deep within the bowels of this snazzy showroom selling Cesar kitchens.  I would have made a beeline in his direction but the throng was such that I had to dart in and out of oncoming human traffic …

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And so it took me some time …

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His name is Andrea Trenta and he told me that he used to run a restaurant near Sacrofano. Bent as he was on preparing what he was preparing, I did not want to pester him by posing too many questions … but I could not stop myself from ooohing and aaahing over his inventive dish!

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IMG_1821What I was oohing and aahing over was … an Orzotto (made with pearl barley) that he was preparing using squash/pumpkin and mostarda essence, with amaretti bisuits and pecorino romano.  Clever thing!, I thought to myself … he has drawn on the tradition of Mantova by using squash and amaretto biscuits, he has made it seasonal (pumpkin) and he has made it ‘local’ by using products and produce that were sourced directly from the organic farm Ecofattorie Sabine (http://www.ecofattorie.it/).

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He explained the amounts he was playing with : 4kg of pearl barley, 6kg of pumpkin/squash, 1.5 kg of pecorino.  Not the sort of amounts I normally deal with in my own kitchen!

IMG_1834And here was my little stash … together with a very nice glass of beautifully cold Stajnbech Chardonnay.  And it was delicious.

INGREDIENTS

Pumpkin soup, onion, pear barley, amaretti biscuits, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, butter, pecrino romano cheese, fresh sage leaves

I made some carrot and pumpkin soup the other day and I had some left over … and so I thought I would follow Andrea Trenta’s suit … and here is my version then.

2Leftover soup … made with onion and garlic, carrots, pumpkin, lemonjuice and salt and pepper …

1The packet of pearl barley … (bought at a supermarket, note, not something I do often … and that’s because I didn’t do the shopping.  Helpful helper was asked to kindly do the food shopping and when I asked for pearl barley, said helper trotted off to the supermarket, tsk tsk).

3I didn’t have any ‘mostarda’ nor mostarda essence … so I opted for some good quality balsamic vinegar (in the background) instead … and in the front are the amaretti biscuits.

4I grated some pecorino romano cheese …

5I began to sauté a red onion in some olive oil on a fairly moderate heat.

6I turned on the heat to bring the soup to a simmer and also added some water — I could see it wasn’t going to be enough liquid otherwise.

7Once the onion had softened, I added the orzo … the pearl barley.

8I stirred it well so that it would get coated with the olive oil.

9And immediately added some of the soup.  Orzo is not rice … and even rice does not need constant stirring … so I just stirred when I fancied it.  I kept adding ladles of the soup by and by.

10I started off by wanting to add 5 amaretti biscuits.  I ended up using 8 altogether.  I poured the balsamico into the wooden spoon – that’s the amount I used altogether since it was quite potent.

11I crushed the amaretti first … and added them towards the end of the cooking time.  I added the balsamico immediately afterwards.  After stirring them in and tasting, I added a little salt and white pepper.

12When the orzotto was almost ready, I added the grated pecorino cheese.

13And then I added some butter too:

14I am positive that Andrea Trenta didn’t add butter … but I love butter so there you are.  It melted almost straight away.

And that was it!

15I grated a little more pecorino directly over the orzotto … added two sage leaves … and one amaretto biscuit as garnish.

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It was actually very very nice and I am going to make it again.  The only thing I hadn’t realised … is that barley takes between 30 and 40 minutes to cook, much longer than a risotto.

Thank you Andrea Trenta!

P.S.  For those who did not know, barley is one of those super foods:

http://www.oprah.com/health/Barley-Dr-Perricones-No-3-Superfood

PPS Here is another pearl barley orzotto recipe — there must be a “Great-Minds-Think-Alike as Regards Pearl Barley Syndrome” wending through our autumnal kitchens! –posted by peripatetic food lover and chef-on-the-move Kay Gale recently: http://thesinglegourmetandtraveller.wordpress.com/2013/09/12/mushroom-rocket-orzotto/

Frascati-style Sartù

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

I would not blame purists from the Campania region if they wanted to throttle me for daring to refer to the rice concoction I am writing about as a ‘sartù’.  A sartù is an iconic conglomeration of a recipe, a precious pearl in the crown of posh recipes that were served to the noble families in the Campania region.  If you want to read more about it, check out my previous post.

Here in the Alban hills south east of Rome, an area known as the “Castelli Romani”, we too have posh antecedents.  We are famous for our baroque estates, sometimes built over the remains of ancient Roman villas (the popes’ summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, for instance, was built over Emperor Domitian’s villa).  Popes, cardinals and Rome’s noble families liked to spend part of their Summer here and enjoy all that it had to offer. If Rome were to be thought of as New York City, then our Castelli Romani could easily be regarded as its Hamptons.  And this all the way from pre-Roman times to just after the Second World War.  A lot changed after then.  And not just in Frascati, naturally, but all over the world.

These days, as far as current Romans are concerned, we people in the Castelli Romani are to be thought of as ‘rednecks’ or ‘hill-billies’ or something akin to a peasant whichever way you look at it.  Their word for us is “burino”.  We are country bumpkin ‘burini’ whereas they are city dwellers, with Rome being the centre of the world.  A lot of this is in jest of course but even so when I hear talk levelled at us burini, I put my hands on my hips and fight back.  I like to counter the view by letting THEM know that one cannot consider himself/herself a true Roman unless he or she has Roman relatives going back at least five generations (even seven).  So mneah, take that!  So many so-called Romans have parents who relocated from other counties just after the Second World War.  Including my husband, for instance. He was born of parents hailing from the Marche Region.  And though he was born and raised in Rome, in theory he couldn’t be considered a ‘true’ Roman.  At least we Castelli people are authentic burini, ha ha.  (Actually, even that wouldn’t be totally correct: so many labourers and workers, during the mid-century 1800s onwards all the way up to the 1950s, came to find a living in these parts.  They hailed mainly from Abbruzzo and the Marche regions, as well as southern Lazio but sssssh, don’t tell.)

PERSONAL BACKGROUND

Favourite son asked that I make polenta for him when he came to visit us last month.  Obliging Mamma of course makes some, double quick,  Favourite daughter loathes polenta and favourite husband isn’t overly keen either, so this request gave me the opportunity to finally make some and know it would be thoroughly appreciated and enjoyed.

I am so used to cooking for a fair amount of people that I ended up making too much sauce (the classic pork and sausage sauce) and thus put the remainder in the freezer.  Except I didn’t – put it in the freezer, I mean.  I thought I had but I hadn’t.  So days after my darling boy had left I discovered a large glass jar of the sauce at the back of the fridge. I tasted it and it was fine thank goodness.  What to do? what do do?  What to do?  I used the sauce to make a risotto.  And then I had one of those beautiful Aha moments and realised I could invent a Roman rendition of the Neapolitan sartù.  Another name for this could be “Timballo di Riso”, I suppose, but it isn’t half as catchy as Frascati-Style Sartù, do admit?

If there is one staple that is iconic to the Castelli Romani (over and above wine that is), then that would be the roast hog known as “porchetta”.  Instead of adding  meatballs and salami to my rice dish, I would substitute with porchetta.  Genius.

RECIPE

(1) The Sauce:

The sauce I made is the following one: https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2012/12/19/sausage-and-spare-rib-stew-for-polenta-polenta-con-le-spuntature/

You don’t have to go all the trouble of making an identical one.  However, do include pork sausage in it whichever way you want to make it.  Pork sausage, garlic, tomato sauce and pecorino are a must.  The rest you can improvise or tweak.

(2) Bechamel

You will also need to make a bechamel: https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2011/03/17/the-queen-of-sauces/

(3) Porchetta

https://frascaticookingthatsamore.wordpress.com/2018/06/05/my-home-made-porchetta-roast-hog/

(3a) Cotechino – explanation follows

(4) Other ingredients

Both parmesan and pecorino cheese, peas (frozen will do), red pepper kernels (optinonal), butter.

PRELUDE TO ACTION

Well, more of in-action to be honest.  Long story short,  I was unable to buy porchetta and had to do with cotechino.  Cotechino is another iconic item on the Italian table, and specifically towards the end of year, in order to celebrate the new year.  It is served traditionally with lentils.  Read all about it by fellow and much-loved blogger Frank Fariello (https://memoriediangelina.com/2010/01/01/cotechino-lentils/).  Cotechino and brother Zampone (another end-of-year sausage) are to be found in stores already towards the end of November.  I picked one up, just because.  And just as well I did.

ACTION

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When the going gets tough, call upon a softie.  In this case, Rossella my sweet next-door neighbour.  We needed to catch up on some gossip and so I inveigled her into coming over for a much needed catch-up, and while we were at it, would she give me a hand in the kitchen?  “Ma certo!” was her gracious resopnse, but of course.  I got her started on the cotechino.  It needed to be cut into cube-like shapes, see above.

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I had alread made the risotto with the leftover sauce and had placed it inside a biggish pyrex dish.  Rossella  spread a layer of cubed cotechino on the surface of the risotto, and then sprinkled another layer of previously cooked peas.

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I call that quite pretty, huh.

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And now, lots of fresh mint and parsely to add a bit of green.  And then much freshly grated parmigiano AND pecorino cheeses (equal parts of).

5aA snowstorm of parmigiano and pecorino with the herbs playing peekaboo.

8And now it’s time for the bechamel.

9Here is Rossella lovingly spreading the bechamel.  She has the patience of a saint.

9aLast-minute addition: red peppercorns. Not too many of course, but enough to get noticed.  I love red peppercorns – they make me feel happy.

10Butter, dollops of butter.

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Ready to be placed in a previously heated oven, at 180°C.

Except that I didn’t bake it straight away.  I froze it.  So …. hip hip hurrah, this is the sort of dish that can be prepared in advance, frozen, and used when necessary.  Especially when a party is necessary.  You do all the hard work days or weeks before and little else on the actual night.

12And this is the only measely photo I have of the completed dish.  I know, I know.  What one does manage to discern doesn’t look very enticing, more like a dog’s dinner.  But I promise you it was very very good and all my guests complimented me.  You’ll just have to trust me.  (You’d think at least one of the guests, or my husband, would have taken a nice photo, no?  Too busy eating?)

Polpette di Melanzane al Cumino -Aubergine Patties with Cumin

These patties, or ‘polpette’ as they are called in Italian are quite simple to make and create a bit of interest taste-wise on account of ingredients that ‘pop’:  cumin, spring onion and fresh mint.  They’re dead easy to  make and are crowd pleasers because you can eat them as a finger food or serve them as a part of a main course.  I made them for the first time just over a year ago, on a whim, and have kept making them since, tweaking them this way and that.  There is no real recipe, if you see what I mean.  Just a bunch of ingredients thrown together.  There are countless recipes for aubergine/eggplant patties in Southern Italy and this one would not differ too much save for one ingredient: cumin.   I’ve never come across an Italian recipe calling for cumin.

Try them, you might like them.

Ingredients

Aubergines/eggplant, plastic bread, spring onion or ordinary onion, parsely if you don’t have mint, tomato paste, cumin, sweet paprika, salt, 1 egg, breadcrumbs, 1 tablespoon grated parmigiano

IMG_3131This is one aubergine, sliced, and cooked in the oven until it dried out a little.  About half an hour.  Wait for the slices to cool before proceeding.

IMG_3125Some slices of bread (this is what I call plastic bread).

IMG_3126Break up the bread.

IMG_3127Add the parsely.  And whizz the parsely too.

IMG_3128Add some cumin: a couple of teaspoons say …

IMG_3129Add 1 peeled onion, cut into quarters.  Spring onions are better, but I didn’t have any that day.

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This is a tube of tomato paste, tomato concentrate.  My fridge is never without one because this tomato can be added to so many recipes.  Just a squidge here and there.

IMG_3130Okay so here is a view from the top: I processed the bread and then the parsely.  After I added an onion, some cumin, a squidge of the tomato paste, a good pinch of salt and, last, the bright orange you see on the right, some sweet paprika.

IMG_3131Remember these?  Time to add them.

IMG_3133IMG_3134IMG_3135The end result was somewhat sticky.

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I transferred this mix to a bowl, and added Italian breadcrumbs, which are very dry, a tablespoon of freshly grated parmigiano, and 1 egg.   I used a spoon to bring the mix together, adding more and more breadcrumbs until I reached the consistency I was after.

A little on the laborious side but not rocket science, it was now time to shape the mix into patties .  I prevailed upon my husband to do this while he was watching some news on the TV.   If he can do this, anyone can.    (Not that I was idly lounging about, I hasten to add, I was otherwise occupied in the kitchen and getting our dinner ready.  The patties were just an ‘extra’.)

I left the patties in the fridge overnight.  I fried them in ordinary groundnut oil, the next day, and served them with some tahini sauce.

I had been asked over to a potluck dinner at a friend’s house and all was well.

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That’s some tahini sauce in the middle.

2I suppose you could also serve them with ketchup, why not?  A squeeze of lemon?  Leave the egg and cheese out, and these can be served as a vegan dish too.

To me … these polpette speak of summer and warmth and longer days.

Pasta Camilla: Courgette Advice and All Things Nice

We have “Pasta Alfredo”, I said to myself, so why can’t we have a “Pasta Camilla” (named after my favourite daughter …. and yes, I do have a favourite son too.  I’m so lucky that way) ?

When life deals you lemons they say you should make lemonade, hmmm.  Well, as it happened,  the other day,  I had a market shop and cooking class in Rome which saw me take the 7:30 train from Frascati to Rome and return at after 4 p.m.  My obliging husband came to pick me up the the last metro station closest to Frascati and reminded me that we had guests for dinner that evening, to celebrate our daughter Camilla’s birthday (one of several celebrations this past week).  I had completely forgotten and my initial reaction was one of dismay.  I was tired, and when I say ‘tired’ I mean really really tired.  The idea of having to cook for guests that evening presented me with a huge hospitality hiccough – and let’s not forget that I had to go and do some shopping for it too!  You get the picture.

Anyway … there is always some alchemical magic when it comes to cooking for people you love.  I wanted to cook something easy and special at the same time.  We ended up having the nicest of evenings.  And this was the pasta result.  We all loved it and, if you omit the sausage, it can also be vegetarian.  Omit the cheese and it’s vegan.

This is one of those recipes that are almost easier to make than to describe.  Try it, you won’t be disappointed.

Ingredients

Courgettes (think at least 1 per person), garlic, extra virgin olive oil, Italian sausages, skinned (I used 2), freshly grated parmigiano, fresh  mint and basil

PART 1 – Cooking One Half the Courgettes

PART 2 – Preparing the Courgette Sauce

PART 3 –  Cooking the other Half of the Courgettes

PART 4 – Bringing it all together

Here we go:

PART 1 – Cooking One Half the Courgettes

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The courgettes/zucchini on the left, two skinned Italian sausages on the right which I proceeded to roughly chop.2While the chopping of the sausage and the slicing of the courgettes was going on, I cooked a couple of garlic cloves in a puddle of olive oil.  I tilted the pan at one point, so that the cloves and the oil coverged into a ‘corner’ of the saucepan – that way the garlic cooked faster and better and I was able to control the cookingiand make sure the garlic did not go brown, only golden.

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It was then that I added the sliced courgettes.  Sprinkled salt over them. (Notice that the courgettes are sliced rather thickly.  There’s a reason for that.  Read on.)

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Once they were cooked, I transferred them to a bowl and set them aside.

PART 2 – Preparing the Courgette Sauce

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I cooked the sausage meat in the same saucepan.  I have a big wooden ‘fork’ – this is excellent for breaking up sausage meat, which is a bit ‘sticky’ at first and wants to clump together.

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If you don’t own a wooden fork, you can use the tip of a whisk to break up the sausage meat – works wonders, you’d be surprised.  I learnt this tip just recently from my friend Chef Luigi Brunamonti.  He does this to break up the meat when making a ragù.

Remember the courgettes I had cooked previously?

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I added a little water (about half a glass I suppose) to the bowl.

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And then I processed them with an immersion blender.8

I added the processed courgettes to the cooked sausages.  Switch the heat off and set aside for now.  Lovely bright green colour, don’t you think.

PART 3 –  Cooking the other Half of the Courgettes

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Please notice that I sliced these courgettes a lot thinner than the previous batch.  These are not going to be blended once cooked, that’s the reason why.

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Another saucepan.  Extra virgin olive oil, again, in the saucepan.

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Cook them for a little bit over quite a high heat.  Sprinkle salt over them.

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Then lower the heat and finish cooking them with a lid on.  Just for a few minutes, and do take the lid off now and then to keep an eye on them.

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I had a few courgette blossoms and shredded them a little and added them to the cooked slices of courgette.  Add salt and set aside.

While all this was going on, I had put the pasta water onto the boil and was cooking the pasta:

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All I had to hand is a type of pasta known as “paccheri” (pronounced pack-kerr-ee in English) which are actually not the easiest of pasta shapes to cook.

PART 4 – Bringing it all together

14I transferred the cooked pasta (well, it was slightly undercooked at this point) directly into the saucepan with the courgette and sausage sauce.

15The heat was on, and I kept adding a ladle of the pasta water to the mix, and tossing and/or stirring the pasta with the wooden spoon, until it was indeed cooked to a texture we call “al dente” in Italian.

16Now was the time to add the courgette slices.

17I switched the heat off.  And added basil and mint – just roughly torn with my fingers.

18A good grating of parmigiano (parmesan cheese).

19A twist of pepper, if you fancy it.

20And … job done! Ready to be served and gobbled up.

No one took a photo of the pasta served on the plate.  Sorry about that.  But I reckon you can get an idea of how delicious it was?  Courgettes aren’t the tastiest of vegetables, let’s face it, but they can be tarted up beautifully like this and deliver a deep gustatory satisfaction.

Let’s hear it for Pasta Camilla !!!

Please Don’t Call This Hummus: Paté di Ceci

I think that, just as with Neapolitan Pizza , Hummus (and yes I have spelled it with a capital H) ought to be placed on UNESCO’s “Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity”.  That is how much I love it and respect it.  So when I come across various patés or mashes dubbed ‘hummus’ just because the ingredients of the dish are puréed – I get really cross.  What I am going to describe below is a paté, okay?  A chickpea paté and NOT Hummus even though the ingredients are very similar.  The word for chickpeas in Italian is “ceci”, pronounced “chay-chee”.

I first tasted this paté in a restaurant in Northern Lazio over ten years ago.  It was served over toasted bread underneath a layer of dark green vegetables and topped with shavings of pecorino.  Another time it was served, again placed upon toasted bread, over a layer of melted lard.  Delicious combinations can be sought.

INGREDIENTS: 1 jar of previously cooked chickpeas, olive oil, garlic, fresh rosemary, lemon juice, salt and pepper

Begin by draining the chickpeas.  I prefer chickpeas that come out of a glass jar rather than a tin can.

1Rinse the chickpeas well.  It dawned on me that this is a vegan friendly recipe.  And then I remembered that many vegans use the cooking water of the chickpeas as a substitute for egg whites.  They have called it “aquafaba”.  Even I, an ominovore, tried making it once, just for the fun of it, and it worked.  The cooking water when whisked looked just like beaten egg whites.  Then I came across an article that explained how aquafaba is actually not at all good for us, quite the opposite.  So if you are vegan and are reading this, or have friends and family who are, please stay well away from aquafaba.  See the link below explaining the whys and wherefores and providing an alternative.

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In a small saucepan, cook some garlic in olive oil and add a sprig of rosemary.  Make sure the garlic does not brown.

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Rotten photo, my apologies.  It was supposed to show that the garlic had turned golden over a low heat.  Switch the heat off at this point.  And transfer the saucepan to a work surface (i.e. away from heat).
Time to add the chickpeas.   Toss them around so that they become coated with the rosemary and garlic scented oil.

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Remove the rosemary.

If you are scared of garlic, and many people are (including Queen Elizabeth of England), remove the garlic at this point too.  But I promise you that cooked garlic is not so pungent and imparts a subtle je ne sais quoi to the final taste.  It’s always a question of balance.  It all depends on how strong the garlic is in the first place, and how much you actually add.

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Now you can switch the heat off.  Add a little water.  Not too much.  About half a glass? You can always add more water later.

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Add salt and pepper.  Blend the chickpeas until you get a texture/consistency that you like.  Taste.  Maybe add more salt or pepper?  Add some lemon juice.  Again, not too much, maybe 1 tablespoon.  Blend again.  Taste again.  Almost there.

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More rosemary. Slice it very very thinly and add it to the paté.

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Cover and store it in the fridge until you need it.  Remove from the fridge at least one hour before you do.

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That evening, we served the chickpea paté over squares of white pizza (pizza that had been baked in a wood-fired oven here in Frascati, a famous bakery by the name of Ceralli).  We added a teensy slice of celery on some of the squares.  (Don’t ask about what else is on the plate if you are on a diet: fried pizza buns containing porchetta and more white pizza containing sliced mortadella). They are just great as an antipasto – nibble – starter, whatever you want to call it.

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Here I am enjoying a Spritz with my friend Carla just as we were about to serve them.

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And here is a close-up of what leftovers looked like the next day – not very appetising, let’s face it.  So … the moral of this story is, serve and eat straight away.

And don’t forget the ‘other’ morality tale concerning aquafaba:

What Is Aquafaba and Why I Won’t Use It

Breathe in, Breathe out: Inspirational Cooking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Have rucksack, picnic rucksack, will travel.

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Have food, will cook.

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

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

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

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

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

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