Pasta Ncasciata: A Sicilian Medley of Marvellous Mixture

I do not know whether you’ve come across cookbook author Diane Darrow or her food blog “Another Year in Recipes”? Well, I think she is fab – I like her hands-on approach and expertise in the kitchen, her take on matters culinary and wry wit.  In the depths of darkest Winter when even here in Rome it got cold and snowed this year, I became entirely fascinated by her recipe for a Sicilian pasta bake called “pasta ncasciata”, which I subsequently found out hails from Messina.

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Diane has written not one but two blogs on this recipe which was inspired by her reading of Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano series, the Sicilian sleuth who lives for his food (well, not just his food, but you know what I mean).  I am a great fan of Montalbano too, only I watched the TV series and haven’t got around to reading any of the books.  When we visited Sicily back in 2014, the house we rented was close to the town where his police headquarteres are filmed  (called ‘Vicata’ in the TV version but called “Scicli” in real life) and we spent one day on the beach where Montalbano’s house is, Punta Secca, even eating in ‘his’ restaurant, the famed “Enzo a Mare” (https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2014/08/02/montalbano-land-and-enzo-a-mare/).

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Maybe because we had such a nice Montalbano-inspired summer holiday in Sicily, maybe because Diane writes and explains so well, and maybe because all of a sudden I was coming across not a few interpretations of this recipe … I decided to make this dish last March when favourite son was coming down from Milan for the weekend.  He asked could he invite some of his friends for Sunday lunch.  Could he indeed! Is the pope catholic …

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Everybody loved it, is all I can say.

So, yesterday, with both our kids here and their cousins from England visiting, the undivided consensus was that I should make spaghetti alle vongole (spaghetti with clams).  The young ‘uns went down to Rome, and ended being caught up in a monsoon-like flash flood downpour that had them trapped in a shop for almost an hour, while muggins here went food shopping up the road in overcast Frascati.

Except that, this being THE annual holiday week in Italy (known as the week of “Ferragosto”), there were hardly any food shops open in town. And certainly not my go-to fishmonger’s.  Well, that put paid to the clam pasta option and I had to rummage around in my menu memory for an adequate substitute. Which is when the pasta ncasciata came gloriously to mind, to save the day.

Now, I’ll be honest with you: this is indeed a ‘fiddly’ dish and requires concentration and time.  Things need to be salted, rinsed, fried, chopped, rolled bla bla bla and, finally, baked.  So if you can get someone to help you out with it, good idea.  Also, considering the amount of toil and steps involved, this would be a silly time to think small.  I would suggest you make a large amount, as I did (i.e. 1 kg of pasta).  You can always eat leftovers the next day.

I bought all the ingredients, save for the pasta and eggs, and of course came home to find that I had run out of eggs  (!) and that the only two 500g packets of ‘short’ pasta I had were of a different kind.  Sigh.

1 kg pasta

If ever you decide to  make this recipe, dear reader, I am sure you will be wiser and less insouciant of ingredient requirements.  Which are:

1 kg of dry pasta (the short short shape), 1.6 kg of tinned plum or cherry tomatoes, 4 (or even more) large aubergines, 250g of minced meat (I used veal this time, I had used beef last time), panko-style breadcrumbs or dampened stale bread for the meatballs, 4 eggs total, 3 of which need to be hard boiled, finely chopped parsely,  2 medium-sized onions, 150g salami, 200g caciocavallo cheese (if you can’t find that, use a mild cheddar? or swiss or Dutch cheese … any cheese that will not overwhelm and that will melt when being baked), 150g pecorino cheese (if you can’t find this then substitute with parmesan), fresh basil leaves, olive oil for frying (yes – only olive oil, none other con be contemplated), salt and pepper.

I favoured the Cirio brand for my tomato sauce. Originally, I thought that a large tin (800g) plus a smaller one (400g) would do the trick, but half way through the cooking I realised I needed more and added another small tin (400g).  Thus: 1.6 kg of plum or cherry tomatoes in all.

That’s the cubed salami on the left (150g) and the sliced (prior to be cubed) caciocavallo on the right (200g).

pecorino qbI happened to have some already grated pecorino cheese in the fridge – see the jam jar in the background. I used all of that up, and had to grate some more to scatter over the pasta just before baking.

MAKING THE MEATBALLS

On the left, you can see the breadcrumbs, the minced veal, the chopped parsely and the grated pecorino.  I used 2 tablespoons of pecorino and ended up using 5 tablespoons of the breadcrumbs.  I sprinkled some salt and pepper over the meat, and also just a teensy amount of freshly grated nutmeg. The second photo shows the egg, needed to bind the mixture.

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Combine all the ingredients using a fork or spoon at first and then your hands.  Allow the huge meat ball to rest for a few minutes.  Then break it down and make lots and lots of small meatballs, the size of a walnut.

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5Lightly fry the mini meatballs in olive oil and set aside.  (Later, pour the oil into the tomato sauce – see below).

MAKING THE TOMATO SAUCE

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As you can see/appreciate, I chopped the onions any ol’ how.  Added plenty of olive oil and cooked them, slowly, over a low heat.  The onions must not brown, just go golden.

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And when they do, add the tomatoes and plenty of salt.  Maybe even a hint of sugar.  But perhaps later, not now.  Those dark green specks are chopped parsely.  I had some left over from making the meatballs so thought waste not, want not, sort of thing.

Now: (1) Cook the sauce for 15 minutes, repeat: over a low heat that allows for a simmer.

Then (2) :

Add the fried meatballs, and cook for a further 15 minutes.

Finally, (3) add a handful of basil and cook for a further 10 minutes.  Total simmering time, roughly 40 minutes.

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Remove the meatballs from the sauce.  Now taste the sauce, and find out whether more salt or sugar should be added.  Cover and set aside.

FRYING THE AUBERGINES

I did not take photos of the aubergines, sorry.  But what I did was: slice them, sprinkle lots of salt over them, put them on a large plate and add a weight to press hard on them. The salt draws out some strange dark component of the aubergine which gives it its characteristic ‘bitter’ taste.

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The dark liquid you see in the photo on the left? That’s the stuff I’m talking about. FYI this photo was taken some time ago, when I was making a pasta dish with fried aubergines called “pasta alla Norma”.

After one hour, I rinsed the aubergine slices more than once in plenty of running water.  Then I squeezed them hard, ruining their shape in the process but never mind, and patted them dry as much as  I could with kitchen paper.

This procedure might sound peripheral to the final outcome but in actual fact guarantees that the aubergine will be fried to perfection!  With none of the greasy heaviness that is usually associated with this nightshade vegetable when it comes to frying.  They are notorious for their greed for oil !  If you really can’t be bothered, the other thing you could do is coat the slices with a fine dusting of flour.  The flour will act like a sheath and prevent the ingress of unwanted oil.

Unfortunately, but it can happen, some of my aubergines were full of seeds.  I had to remove some in the course of the frying because I was worried the seeds might burn and impart a nasty taste.  But I was lucky and this did not happen.  Also, I tasted the olive oil in which the slices were fried (once it had cooled down enough, naturally!), and it tasted really nice and, what’s more, quite ‘auberginey’.  So I decided to add some of this oil to the final sauce.

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I poured the oil through a strainer to get rid of the seeds.

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TIME TO CONCENTRATE AND COOK THE PASTA

 

Right – where were we?  I’ll confess that this is when I went to the fridge and poured myself a glass of crisp white wine.  What’s a gal to do, this is hard work. A lot of thinking required.

At this point: The sauce is done, tick, the meatballs too, tick.  The aubergines have been fried, tick.

pecorino qbThe other ingredients (except for the boiled eggs – which I didn’t make because I had only 1 egg in the fridge yesterday) are at the ready.

Time to get cracking.  This is when it gets exciting (amazing what a sip or two of wine can do).

IMG_8960Put the water onto the boil.  I did not have a baking dish large enough to hold 1 kg of pasta.  So I opted for two smaller ones, to hold 500g each.  Also, I had two different kinds of pasta to deal with, remember?  So, I decided it was best to cook the pasta in two separate pasta pots.  I read the cooking time, and removed the pasta 2 minutes BEFORE the recommended time.

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At first, I thought it would be a good idea to divide the sauce up equally between the two baking dishes.  Then I changed my mind, and had to pour the sauce back into the original saucepan. I realised, silly me, that the pasta would have to be mixed in properly with all the sauce BEFORE going into the baking dish.

So grab a big frying pan and pour all the sauce into it.

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The sauce was still warm, so I didn’t bother turning the heat on.

IMG_8967Sprinkle some grated pecorino into the sauce – about 50 g.  This looks very Jackson Pollock, does it not?

IMG_8968Add some of the oil that was used to fry the aubergines.  Mix well.  May I remind you that I was using extra virgin olive oil – I wouldn’t dream of doing this with any other oil.

Now that the pasta is cooked (but slightly undercooked, remember?), drain it directly into the large sauce-filled pan and use a wooden spoon to make sure all of it is coated.

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THE OVEN SHOULD BE TURNED ON AT 200°C.

TIME FOR THE FINAL COMBINING AND PLACING IN OVEN TO BAKE FOR ROUGHLY 40 MINUTES

Basically, there are three ‘layers’ to this dish.  Layer the pasta first, then add slices of aubergine, some meaballs, some salami and caciocavallo and a scattering of grated pecorinio.  Repeat until you run out of everything.

Take a look at the following 4 photos of the first baking dish, an ancient pyrex dish that goes back to the 1970s I think!

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Notice how I added more fresh basil leaves in the third photo, before adding the last layer.  If you leave the basil leaves on top, they will naturally burn during their stay in the hot oven.

Here are four other photos of the other baking dish, a lovely green ceramic one.

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67AI8I had set some of the drained pasta aside because I was worried that the sauce might not be ‘thick’ enough to cover the entire 1kg amount.  There was, instead, a little  bit of sauce left over, and so I now used up the dregs of the pasta and the sauce.

9This was a much ‘lighter’ pasta (i.e. less sauce).  I divided this up between the two to act like a ‘lid’ over the rest of the goodies below.  I also grated a little bit of pecorinio cheese over them.  Think of this as a final topping.

I apologise, I have no photos to show of the baking dishes just before I put them into the oven.  I did put a lid on both of them.  They baked for about 40 minutes, at 200°C in a fan oven.

OUT OF THE OVEN

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IMG_8983And then we have leftovers the next day !

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What can I say? Marvellous!

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P.S.  If you read Diane Darrow’s recipe (see link below), she does not include the meatballs.  I found the addition of the meatballs in many other recipes I researched on the internet and decided I liked the idea.  Like Diane, I had used mozzarella on my first attempt but have to confess to preferring the caciocavallo second time around.  I would not like the idea of mortadella, not because I don’t adore mortadella, but it does hail from Bologna and this is a Sicilian dish after all.   And ssssh, don’t tell a soul, we didn’t miss the boiled eggs in the least bit.  But to each their own, there is no arguing over personal likes and preferences as even the Romans used to say in their adage “De gustibus non disputandum est”.  I keep scratching my head for a vegetarian version – you know, no salami or meatballs.  I excpect it would taste pretty good too, why not.  Maybe ramp up the amount of pecorino used.

Thank you Diane Darrow for inspiring me!

https://dianescookbooks.wordpress.com/2018/02/21/montalbanos-pasta-ncasciata-again/

 

Carrot Sunshine and Meatballs (polpette) with a Georgian Sauce

At risk of repeating myself for those who are faithful readers of my blog, this is to say that I am a vegetarian who eats a lot of meat. I cannot think of a meal without vegetables, it just does not make sense to me.  In terms of ratio, our household spends one third more on veggies compared with meat (fish is another kettle of , ehm errr, fish … never cheap).

I’ve not done as much cooking as I would have liked this past year or so for reasons that I don’t relish.   Even though I basically do cook nearly every evening, it’s the ‘routine’ cooking that I end up mostly doing, for lack of time.  Now, routine cooking is a vital element in anyone’s busy life and must never be underestimated.  It’s what keeps us going, literally nourishes us, and lends credence, however gossamer, to our desire for some control over our daily existence. I am biased, I know, but that’s where I think Italian cuisine does a brilliant job of providing simple dishes that do not require tedious or lengthy preparations.  I am a meat eater and eat it often.  But these days the meat(s) in question run along an – let’s face it – uninspiring rota of: meatballs (polpette) – that I can often find ready made at my trusty butcher’s, breaded slices of beef (fettina panata), straccetti (very thin slices of beef), chicken breast, chicken alla cacciatora and hamburgers.  To distract from the banal sameness of this selection, I always make an extra effort with the vegetables, the side dish, the contorno.

So today’s post is how I thought griddle-cooked slices of carrot could add a ray of sunshine to what were very ordinary if honest polpette.  I happened to have the tail end of a leek too, in the fridge, and added that to the mix.

1)Slice the carrots and cook them on both sides on a hot griddle.

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2) Cook the polpette in hot olive oil, in batches.

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3) Trim the tail end of a leek, wash well to make sure there isn’t any soil lurking around and then pat dry.  Slice very thinly, dredge in flour, get rid of excess flour, and then fry them too.   Drain and set aside.

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4) Arrange the carrots around the rim of the plate.  Plop the fried leek in the middle.

455) Now add the polpette and any fresh herbs of your choice

76Yes, I know … it’s a bit ‘twee’ … but the orange in the carrots is a very cheery appetising colour.  And the leek added crunch factor.

As one final touch of weekday kitchen panache, I served the dish with a Georgian-inspired red pepper and walnut sauce known as ‘adjika’.  I had made it a few days previously and leftovers were lounging in the fridge, ready to be finished off.  It was this sauce that made everything come together (the polpette might have been a tad dry otherwise).

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It may not look like much but can I tell you – it is just fabulous.

The photos that follow are self evident in their instructions.  All you have to do is cook the red peppers (I do that in the oven), and then peel them and wait for them to cool down.  Also required: tomato sauce (passata), walnuts, salt, garlic, cumin, parsley, chilli flakes or fresh chilli, and a little bit of olive oil.  Process and hey presto: adjika to the rescue!

I am thinking that next time, I might toast the walnuts before starting.

I can’t tell you how much cumin to add – sorry, you’ll just have to decide for yourself.  Looks like I added 2 cloves of garlic.

And on top of the parsley, I think there is a sage leaf there in the background?

IMG_6162Be careful not to Jackson-Pollock-overdo it with the processor, we don’t want the sauce to be too ‘thin’.

IMG_6154And a very important ingredient, always, is a glass of wine or a cocktail or a cool refreshing drink.  All that cooking is thirsty work.

Loosey Goosey Mozzarella Topping for Fried Aubergine Slices

The queen of summer dishes is the Parmigiana di Melanzane, of course.  Slices of aubergine fried in olive oil and then baked in the oven with mozzarella, basil, parmesan and a tomato sauce.  It is, however, a dish that requires an attitude of reverence and plenty of time for its production.  One evening a few weeks ago, I decided I would settle for an aubergine recipe that would use the same ingredients basically but at the same time offer the bonus of taking less than an hour to prepare.

I also decided to go for this recipe because … the aubergines and tomatoes I had to hand weren’t exactly the best quality.  I am a bit of a bore when it comes to where to do one’s food shopping and I have been avoiding/boycotting supermarkets for many years now, ever since I read the book by Felicity Lawrence “Not on the Label”, circa 2005/6/7 … can’t remember exactly which year.  I realise I am at risk of coming across as a terrible snob, with supercilious standards, especially with regard to people who go to supermarkets for reasons of economy.  So I hasten to add that Frascati, which is where I live, is a very short distance to many markets: our own Frascati covered market open Monday to Saturday and a Slow Food Market every Saturday morning, both of which I can reach on foot; then there are farmers markets in the area (Ariccia), and weekly markets (Grottaferrata on Mondays, Cocciano on Wednesdays), as well as a couple of farms (Capodaraco in Grottaferrata and Iacchelli not far from Nemi). And not only do the prices of their wares compete very favourably with supermarket prices but … their produce is infinitely better on the whole, it really is, no contest! I am nearly always disappointed when I buy veg from a supermarket.  Which fortunately does not happen very often.

Anyway, it just so happened that I had some dodgy looking aubergines and tomatoes sourced from, you guessed it, the supermarket.  Their look wasn’t exactly a come-hither one and the only answer for me to such a strait (that perhaps only I deem to be dire) was to go down the tasty camouflage route, i.e. to take recourse to frying.  As they say in Italian, even the sole of a shoe would taste good if it were fried.

INGREDIENTS

Aubergines, tomatoes, basil leaves, breadcrumbs, eggs, mozzarella, good quality extra virgin olive oil, oil for frying (either olive oil or groundnut/peanut oil).  Salt.

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The first thing to do is rip the mozzarella and put it in a sieve or colander so as to dry it up a little, remove the excess of its liquid.

1These tomatoes looked pretty enough but … their taste left a lot to be desired. I had a little bit of tweaking to do in order to amp up their flavour.  Cut the tomatoes in half, and then half again, place in another colander and allow them to drip away.

2And here is the prepping station.  Some beaten eggs in one plate.  Some breadcrumbs in another.  The unprepossessing aubergines.  I peeled them, cut them into fairly thick round slices.  I then coated them with the egg wash before breading them on both sides.

3Be sure to press quite hard.  Fingers get to be incredibly sticky and require frequent rinsing (especially if the phone rings – now why is it that the phone tends to always ring or the neighbour call in when I am in the process of frying food?  Maybe the anti-frying police is after me.).

4Off I went and shallow fried the aubergine slices.  Turning them over only once.  I removed them with a slotted spoon and set them over a plate with kitchen paper to welcome any unwanted oiliness.

6And now back to the mozzarella rags.  I put them in the food processor with a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil.  I used the pulse feature to process them. I seem to remember adding 1 tablespoon of very cold water, to ‘loosen’ the mozzarella as it were.

7I stopped the blitzing and tasted the mozzarella.

8I decided it required a little more olive oil.  A good sprinkle of salt and white pepper and some fresh basil leaves.  A little more blitzing and it was done.

9And here, dear reader, is my loosey goosey mozzarella topping: easy peasy!

It was time to put the ingredients together and serve the dish.

1011I added a little dribble of olive oil to the tomatoes as well as a tiny sprinkle of salt (sea salt, always sea salt).

On the platter.

1314And for all my lamenting and decrying over the quality of the aubergines and tomatoes, this recipe turned out to be very good indeed.  All of the aubergine slices got wolfed down and a sense of summer satiety obtained at the dinner table.  Frying can work miracles, I tell you.

Flowery Meatballs

I was eleven years old when the song came out: “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)”.

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It was “written by John Phillips of The Mamas & the Papas, and sung by Scott McKenzie. It was released in June 1967 to promote the Monterey Pop Festival.  McKenzie’s song became an instant hit. The lyrics tell the listeners, “If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair”.  “San Francisco” reached number four on the Billboard Hot 100 in the United States, and was number one in the United Kingdom and most of Europe. The single is purported to have sold over 5 million copies worldwide. The song is credited with bringing thousands of young people to San Francisco during the late 1960s.  In Central Europe, young people adopted “San Francisco” as an anthem for freedom, and it was widely played during Czechoslovakia’s 1968 Prague Spring uprising against Soviet rule.”

Here is a link to the song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7I0vkKy504U

I was out of an evening last week, scurrying to get to the greengrocers before its closing time,  and came upon a packet of edible flowers, not a usual ‘find’ in this shop!

1And I was just so attracted to their beauty and vibrant colours that I bought them without even thinking about it, or how I would be able to weave them into our dinner that evening.

Dinner was a homey humble polpette (meatballs), asparagus and spinach affair. Humdrum mid-week meal: meat and two veg, you know, hardly anything to write home about.   Home-made mayo for the asparugs and lemon juice and olive oil for the spinach. Yet those flowers somehow brought music to my soul and I couldn’t help but sing snatches of the song as I went about my preparation.  I think that a hippy is the last thing I could ever aspire to being, hippy drippy I never could be, but I confess that I am indeed attracted to wearing flowers in my hair.  To cooking with a spring in my step.  To seeking joy in the little things.  To kicking my heels occasionally in the kitchen.  Fry and flirt …

A few days later and there would be another terrorist attack, in London.  Among some of the articles I read about it, one was entitled “This is a war on joy – Don’t let the terrists rob us of who we are”.  (www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jun/04/war-joy-terrorists-london-bridge-attack-manchester-westminster?utm_source=esp&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=GU+Today+main+NEW+H+categories&utm_term=229148&subid=16390029&CMP=EMCNEWEML6619I2)

I agree.  Showing sympathy and empathy is what makes us human, and reasonable people.  But we also have to keep our spirits up at the same time.  We need to fight back on a daily basis and not let these ghastly events depress us.  It’s what these mad people want.  And I don’t want to give them that satisfaction. Make love, not War!  Pur flowers in your food.

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I soaked some breadcrumbs in water and then added olive oil.

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I grated some parmesan, to which I added some freshly grated nutmeg, a little bit of paprika, and a squeeze of tomato paste.

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And then, with the addition of two eggs and the minced meat (beef), as well as salt and pepper, and some minced parsely or mint (not in the photo) … use your hands to combine all the ingredients.

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Shape them into meatballs.  Et voilà there they are!

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Fry them in olive oil or groundnut/peanut oil.

 

Turn them over only once.

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And, finally, serve them on a plate with plenty of flowers.   And rejoice.

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12So pretty, do admit!

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The Summer of Love in San Francisco was 50 years ago.  High time we rekindled some more summery love all over the globe.

https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2007/may/27/escape

The Chicken Kiev Conundrum

The name of this recipe, for starters.  A Saveur Magazine said: “Though it’s named for Ukraine’s capital city, chicken kiev is probably not a Ukrainian dish.  Some say it was conceived by the French inventor Nicolas Appert in the 18th century; others claim it was created at private club in Moscow in 1912.”  In a similar vein, a Russian cuisine website says: “Turns out that Chicken Kiev is originally from France. It was invented by French chef, Nicolas Francois Appert and was known as côtelettes de volaille.  Côtelettes de Volaille arrived to Russia during the times of Empress Elizaveta Petrovna. Russian Empress Elizaveta Petrovna was brought up by a French tutor, spoke French and was fascinated by French culture. By the late 18th century, French dishes and fashion were widely imitated in Russia.  However, it is generally believed that côtelettes de volaille have been renamed to Chicken Kiev by New York restaurants trying to please Russian clientele in the 20th century. The dish was also known as Chicken Supreme.” (https://www.funrussian.com/2011/07/10/russian-chicken-kiev-recipe/)

According to an article in The Telegraph dated 10th May, so yes, very au courant, this recipe has even been the subject of recent political controversy: “In February this year, a New York Times reporter noted on Twitter that a dish identical to chicken Kiev was being served  in the canteen of the Russian Foreign Ministry called Chicken Crimea – interpreted by some as a statement of Russia’s claim over the Ukrainian peninsula. The Russian Ministry were quick to point out that the dish was different because it was made with chicken thigh, not breast.” http://www.telegraph.co.uk/food-and-drink/features/10-things-didnt-know-humble-chicken-kiev/

What we can all agree on is the fact that it was a cult dish of the 1970s.

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I am so very glad I bought a book called “The Prawn Cocktail Years” written by Simon Hopkinson and Lindsey Bareham.  It came out in 1997 and it was alread ‘old’ by the time I got to purchasing it, circa 2008.  The title said it all, how could I resist buying it!  It’s a book I’ve often leafed through with expressive smiles on my face and chortles and chuckles popping out.  It is entertaining.

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I found a  a website called “Not Delia” (http://www.notdelia.co.uk/the-prawn-cocktail-years/) that has this to say about it:

“The premise of the book is that, as food fashion has changed, some dishes have been “loved and lost”. In many cases this is a good thing – brown Windsor soup, anyone? But some dishes are inherently Good and, despite going out of fashion, remain popular to this day. “Everybody, but everybody, loves Prawn Cocktail”.  Dishes which were once exciting (Coq au Vin, Spaghetti Bolognese) “have been slung out like old lovers, while we carelessly flirt with the flavour of the month”.  The authors’ “mission” is to rehabilitate these classics – and they are classics because they’ve stood the test of time – in “a country now obsessed with culinary novelty”. All the dishes in the book “have the potential to be truly excellent”, and were good in the first place. As stated in the book’s introduction: “The purpose of this book is to redefine the Great British Meal and rescue other similarly maligned classic dishes from years of abuse…”  “There are eight chapters, taking us through the eras of Great British dining out. From the 1950s hotel dining room to the Gentleman’s Club, the Sixties Bistro, and more, culminating in Chez Gourmet. It’s an interesting culinary tour through modern social history.

“Most of the recipes come with a bit of nostalgia or other interesting observation wittily written. On Trout with Almonds (Sixties Bistro chapter) they have this to say: “Finding a wild river trout these days is about as easy as not coming across sun-dried tomatoes on the menu of yet another fashionable restaurant.” (Remember the book was published in 1997. Maybe a future book will be called The Sun-Dried Tomato Years.)”

End of quote.

My family used to eat a version of Chicken Kiev when I was growing up in East Pakistan (1969-1971), I am almost sure of that says my memory.  So … question.  Who taught our cook how to make Chicken Kiev? Aha!  Very mysterious.  And it was always considered a bit of a treat, to be served on special occasions.  Now, of course, many would think that Chicken Kiev is naff and slightly silly.  The authors say that it is ‘simple’ to prepare but I have to disagree with them.  It is what I term ‘fiddly’ and requires some dexterity and plenty of time.  I only made it once, three years ago, and that sort of says it all.    But it WAS “downright tasty” and “texturally brilliant”, yes.

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There has been a ginormous thunderstorm, complete with lightning and hail, which has all added to the mood-making chicken kiev mystery as I write this post.   Anyway, on display are most of the ingredients: chicken breasts, eggs, softened butter, garlic,  parsley and tarragon, flour and Italian style breadcrumbs.  You will also need 2 shakes of Tabasco sauce, the grated zest of one small lemon, as well as its juice.  Finally, to complete the recipe list, add good quality oil, and plenty of it, with which to fry the stuffed chicken breasts.

I cheated and got my butcher to cut a slit in the skinned chicken breasts, from the side, in order to create a cavity or pocket, or whatever you want to call it.

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Now that I look at the photo(s), I realise the cartilage should have been removed too.

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And, this was my personal addition, some grated parmesan.  Also, a pinch or two of sweet paprika (it never hurts).  Their recipe called for, as an option,  2 tsp of Pernod – but I didn’t have any and did not live to rue its absence.  It also required chives but, again, I didn’t have any.

To begin with, I set out to make the garlic and herb butter.  The recipe says: “Blend the first 10 (8 in my case: no chives or Pernod) ingredients together in a food processor and allow the mixture to firm up slightly in a cool place (not the fridge).” The last tip didn’t make any sense to me and I, overcome by a somewhat rebellious mien, deemed it advisable to go so far as even putting the mixture in the freezer, ha!  I am so anarchic …5

I added salt and pepper to the lemon juice containing the garlic, lemon zest, and Tabasco.

The butter and the herbs got whizzed up.  I dribbled in the lemon juice mixture a little at a time.

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I then placed the mixture on some parchment paper.

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I added the parmesan and combined all the ingredients.

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I used the paper to shape the butter mixture into a long, slightly flattened sausage.

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And in it went inside the freezer.  I can’t remember for how long, but probably 15-20 minutes.  Long enough for it to harden, but not freeze.

Meanwhile, I got on with the next step.  I added some paprika to the flour.  And put plenty of breadcrumbs in a bowl.  I beat the eggs in another bowl.

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And here is what my mise en place was looking like: (1) chicken, (2) paprika stained flour, (3) egg wash, (4) breadcrumbs, (5) groundnut oil.

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This is a photo of the butter mixture out of the freezer and sliced into a stick shape.

It’s a good idea to put a tiny amount of flour even into the cavity.

Because the butter has hardened, it makes it easy to insert the filling.

Once the butter mixture is snugly inserted in the cavity, press the flaps of the chicken firmly together.

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Dust the chicken breasts with flour, then coat with the egg wash and, finally, dredge in the breadcrumbs.  I seem to have spotted some green ‘bits’ in the breadcrumbs .. probably some leftover parsley.

One must take taking care to fill all the little crevices.  Preparation complete.  Now it’s time to fry these as best you can.  The first rule is that there should be plenty of oil, plenty.  The second is that the temperature should be around 160°C.  For those who do not own a thermometer, and I did not at the time, “this is when a scrap of bread turns golden after a couple of minutes”.  Rule number three: fry in small batches, in this case it was two at a time.

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Once one side of the chicken has browned, turn it over to the other side.  30

The recipe says to deep fry the chicken for 8 minutes.  I honestly can’t remember how long it took me.  Maybe a little more, who knows?

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I had turned the oven on low heat, and left the chicken pieces there to keep warm while I got on with whatever else I was doing at that point (laying the table? making mashed potatoes?).  The authors say Chicken Kiev should be served with chips (French fries) and lemon quarters and watercress.

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This is what I mean about the recipe not being ‘simple’.  I cut one to check that the meat was cooked properly (i.e. not pink), and it was lovely to see the sauce ooze out but I was not so mesmerised by the crunchy part sliding off the chicken with such slippery insousiance.  Sigh.

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I sprinkled some salt and pepper on them just before serving.

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The sauce really was most delicious, I have to admit.

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And, aesthetics be damned, the crunchy coating did taste “texturally brilliant”.

Next time, I think I would place the chicken, duly stuffed, in the freezer for a few minutes and THEN dip them in flour, beaten egg and breadcrumbs.

 

 

Buying Olive Oil the Maritime Way

I have become somewhat addicted to the olive oil produced by Quattrociocchi, in the countryside near Alatri, about 40 minutes away by car from Frascati.

IMG_6008My mother has too.  One of my sisters in the UK has too and every time my mother goes over to visit, she takes three to four 3-litre cans of their Olivastro oil with her.  It’s that good.  It is organic. It was won prizes all over the world, indeed I daresay it might even be the olive oil that has won the most prizes globally?.

I did an introduction-to-olive-oil course last year with Marco Oreggia, he of Flos Olei fame.  It was very interesting and I will eventually get around to writing a post about it. Anyway, Quattrociocchi gets 98 out of 100 points in their 2016 Guide (which is the Flos Olei guide I have at the moment).  Just to give you an idea, another olive oil which I love and is very well known and highly thought of,  Marfuga, from Umbria, gets ‘only’ 95 out of 100 points.  The Quattrociocchi olive oils contain phenolic antioxidant levels that are off the charts – which means it is incredibly good for boosting our health.  And at Eu12 per litre I would say that it is also very reasonably priced.  Whatever, we get through their oil as if there were no tomorrow.

Going to fetch the olive oil has frequently turned into a little jaunt for  my mother and me, with lunch being thrown in for good measure.  When my friend Sally came to visit for an all too brief stay last September, it coincided with my having completely run out and needing to go, otherwise I would have postponed, naturally.  The three of us (Sally, my mother and I) got there later than we had hoped for and when reached the restaurant we normally go to, we found out it was its weekly closing day.  The long and the short of it is that we ended up having lunch in one of these ‘Autogrill’ stopover places on the Autostrada (the Motorway). We could have done worse I suppose, and Sally is never one to comnplain anyway, but still …

Which is why, just the other day, the weather being so sunny and promising, I thought I’d surprise my mother as to the location of our post-Quattrociocchi shopping.  She insisted it was her treat, and I insisted I would choose where.  And that’s how we ended up having lunch overlooking the sea at Sperlonga.  Just to make up for our Autogrill lunch of six months ago.

Sperlonga is a very sleepy town in Winter and is not even wide awake now, as it readies itself for the Summer tourist season.  And that made it even more special an atmosphere to  be sauntering about in.  We ended up having lunch at “Il Portico”, very civilised and pleasant.  And all in all, we had a very special mother-daughter outing.  Now, it’s not every day that I take this long and go so far just to  buy some olive oil! But since life can indeed be so busy, and hard or disappointing, or just plain tiring a lot of the time, I try my best to imbue my ‘to-do’ list with ‘to-enjoy’ moments.  I hope you enjoy looking at the photos too.  I just love the sea! I just love the blue skies!

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Sperlonga sits atop two stretches of beach: this one is on its left.  There are the remains of the ancient Roman villa of Tiberius on this beach.  If you look closely on the horizon, on the other hand, you can just about make out the island of Ischia.

1Here, the island of Ischia is much easier to spot – almost floating on the horizon.  This beach is going to be very busy in a few weeks’ time but right now it was just dreamy to behold.  Some intrepid people were even bathing in the sea!

21And this is the stretch of coastline to the right of Sperlonga.  What looks like an island, there on the horizon, is actually the promontory of San Felice Circeo.  It is said that Odysseus/Ulysses was drawn there by the sorceress Circe.  She turned his men into pigs but he was so clever and so damn macho and sexy, I suppose?, that he managed not to be outwitted by Circe and have his men turned back into men again.  They/He enjoyed staying with her for a year before resuming their journey to Ithaca, and he back to his wife Penelope (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Circe).

20All of Sperlonga is white-washed. Perched on top of a scraggy promontory to keep safely out of reach of marauding and pillaging Saracens, its streets are very narrow.

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It looks a little ‘Greek’, doesn’ it.  Adore this hue of blue.

18One has to be fit to live here … Can’t imagine people doing a weekly shop here.  More likely a half-day shop!

1716May is the month of roses …

121115My mother enjoyed her fried anchovies.

14I was a little greedier.

10896Love the bougainvillea.

7A huge ficus!

5An olive tree.

Time to go home.  An espresso and off we go.

13The weather is grey and it’s drizzling and the sky is a murky pale grey as I write this post, sigh.  Nothing like the blue of the sky and sea and the dazzle of a sunny day to make life come more ‘alive’.

The poet Ungaretti is famous for his one-liner “Mi illumino d’immenso”, which rolls off the tongue in a very Nabokovian sound-pleasing way in Italian.  Its title is “Mattina”, meaning morning.  It was printed in 1918 for the first time within an anthology entitled “Cielo e mare”, i.e. The Sky and The Sea.  Sometimes it takes a poet to know how to be pithy about the beauty and wonder of life.

Mi illumino
d’immenso.

Quoting from an article in The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2003/may/31/featuresreviews.guardianreview6)

“To Italians, it’s perhaps the most famous poem of modern times: a tiny piece just seven syllables long, four shorter than a single line of Dante. The title is “Mattino” (Morning), and you don’t need to know Italian to catch the beauty of its sound:

M’illumino
d’immenso

A rough translation would be “I flood myself with the light of the immense”, though the vagueness of that is alien to the poem’s terse musicality. The open vowels and the repeated ms and ns create a mood of wonder, evoking the light of a new day starting to flood the sky. The two lines capture something deep in consciousness that responds to this great but commonplace event out there in the external world.

A Searing Saga – Part 1

This is a Part 1 of a Part 2 Story Searing Meat story.  The technique mentioned in this part relies on searning the meat first and foremost.

Cousin Arthur on my husband’s side of the family (not a first cousin but that’s all I am able to explain since I can never figure out how many steps are removed, meaning that the ‘removing’ mechanism of kinship completely baffles me) runs an Italian restaurant in the Highlands in North Carolina called Paoletti’s (http://paolettis.com/).  It serves a regional Italian-food menu and boasts one of the ‘deepest wine cellars in the Southeast’. It has been in business for 32 years so that must surely say something about its quality.

We first met Arthur and his wife Meg about eight years ago and were very much looking forward to seeing them again last month.  They were on a road trip that began in northern Italy, visiting various wine estates in Piedmont and Tuscany on their way to Rome. And with them were three members of the kitchen staff.   I met with the boys in Rome and gave them a whirlwind unlikely tour of the city which went something like this.  We ‘did’ the church of Santa Sabina, the Orange Garden (Parco Savelli), the peeking through the key-hole, driving around the Aventine a little (well, we were able to see the Circus Maximus, the back end of the Roman Forum, the fleetest of glimpses of the Arch of Constantine, blink-and-you-miss-it Colosseum, the Baths of Caracalla, the Church of S. Saba and Rome’s only pyramid).  It was now time to visit the market at Testaccio and take a look at some food. And eat some food too, naturally.

And as we planned our menu for the next evening, Arthur developed a yen for Chianina. We went to the Sartor butcher’s who told us that unfortunately they were out of Chianina that day but that there was a lovely cut of fassona meat from Piedmont that would  make a marvellous substitute.

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I think it’s that big cut of meat on the left of this photo, in the background.

Anyway, we bought a good sized steak and all kinds of vegetables and even some fresh anchovies to round off tomorrow’s meal.  And got on with the rest of the tour.

0.JPGHere are the boys, in order from the left: Julio, Vijay, Arthur and Danny.  We went to see the Via Appia Antica, we walked through the Ghetto, and onto Campo de’ Fiori, and stopped for coffee and ice cream and shopping and, at my insistence, a sampling of the supplì in Via del Pellegrino.  Aperitivo hour was upon us and we chose to enjoy one sitting outside in Piazza Farnese.  Ciao ciao! see you tomorrow.

I managed to find some Chianina here in Frascati the next morning and all was well in our world.  Now began the fun. Ha!  1Danny got the job of shelling the broadbeans/fava beans.  I had pre-prepared (does that word exist? – the concept makes sense to me) a duck ragu that required further chopping. Only there wasn’t any room in the kitchen and so the boys had to make do with the balcony.  Vijay was somewhat bemused that I should hand him some scissors in order to chop it up the duck ragu, instead of a knife, but it was just like water off a duck’s back to him.

3aArthur, meanwhile, supervised the pouring of wine (they brought along some marvellous Felsina bottles, oh lucky us!, including their bubbly metodo classico) and here he is making the dressing for the puntarelle salad as he contemplates the meat.  I made sure that the meat was at room temperature.

2The evening was getting very jolly by now, our other guests had arrived, and here we are at the point where the batter is ready and Vijay is stuffing the courgette/zucchine blossoms.

aliceEnrico, my brother-in-law, butterflied the anchovies and fried them ‘alla romana’, with just beaten egg and flour.

3And here, dear Reader, you may get an idea of just how ‘big’ my kitchen is! As you can see, it will accommodate no more than two people comfortably.  But sometimes comfort has to be forfeited when it comes to cooking.  That’s why any poor home cook requires copious refills of their wine glass and seeks comfort in philosophy.  How else can one micro-manage or cope? This is Enrico at the stove.

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Enrico is an expert griller and we discussed how we were going to deal with grilling the meat without a grill !  I don’t have one.  And here is how we did it.  We seared the two steaks as much as we could on a cast-iron thingummy jig (what IS the name of that cooking utensil in the photo?) and realised that we would have to finish them off for a few minutes in the oven.  At 150°C I seem to remember.

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5The only distracting irritation was the smoke … the steaks released a lot of fat and so we used some of that as condiment over slices of bread.  It used to be called ‘panuntella’ here in Frascati, except the meat in question was pork and not beef.6All things considered, the meat turned out remarkably well … and all I can say is that there wasn’t any left over.

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wines

And here are the empty bottles of wine the following day.  I want to take this opportunity to once more thank Arthur, his trio of chefs and Enrico for making it such fun for all of us that evening.  We were quite the motley crew and there was much jest and rejoicing. I think I should get kudos too for not being too flustered about cooking with five chefs (Enrico just recently re-opened the Cantina Colonna restaurant in Marino).

And so all is well that ends well … we managed to sear and then cook the steaks on the stove top and then in the oven (i.e. without a grill), end of story.

Until, a few days later, I come across an article about a technique called “reverse sear”.

I will tell you all about it in the Part 2 of this searing saga.