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.

Small Vegetable Shop for a Mega Cooking Crisis – Piccola Bottega Merenda

I only recently heard of a small(ish) vegetable shop, a greengrocer’s as we once would have called it, receiving merited acclaim for the high quality of its produce.  It is called Piccola Bottega Merenda and is located in the Tuscolano area of Rome, just down the road from where I live, more or less, in Frascati.  All the produce is sourced from small holders/farmers and little old ladies who go foraging, and all the vegetables are completely and only seasonal.  As to their freshness, the shop has not installed a refrigerator, the veggies get sold within the day or maybe two days.  They also sell top notch cheeses, and a selection of charcuterie, as well as dry goods and other staples, drawn from brands that are either organically certified or else just bloody good.  I noticed, for instance, that they sell my favourite olive oil: Quattrociocchi.  Not to mention an array of mouth-watering cheeses.

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Anyway, the reason I ended up going there last Friday was a bureaucratic one.  I needed to pick up a legal document from a public notary office in Rome.  I knew that their opening hours in the morning was from 08:30 to 12:15 p.m. and got there at around 11:00.

Only to find it closed.

Friday being the last day of the month, the office closed at 10:15.  Picture me, neck craned, doing a double take, double blink, OMG I don’t believe this!, I have just wasted a whole morning practically, Oh woe is me, o me misera!  Seriously? a public office is not open to the public after 10:15 ? Just because it is the end of the month? Why bother opening in the first place?

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Thankfully, it was a beautiful warm, sunny day.  It’s a crime to get one’s knickers in a twist when the weather and the time of year are are prompting you it to notice that it should be a joy to be alive. And so I resolved to turn this ‘down’ into an ‘up’ and, why not?, pop into the Piccola Bottega Merenda on my way home and do some shopping there.  I was having friends over to dinner the next day so it made a lot of sense.

Finding parking near the shop proved to be very challenging and I had to resort to a bit of devil may care nonchalance as I parked our car vertically alongside a zebra crossing, which is not allowed as we all know.  The avenue, however, was a wide one and cars could cross the road no problem, as could pedestrians on the zebra crossing.  Fearing an umpteenth ticket, on the other hand, I knew I would have to make the visit a short one.

The Piccola Bottega Merenda is run by the couple Giorgio and Giulia and from all accounts very lovingly so, showing respect both for the farmers and the end user.  All the fruit and vegetables are seasonal and they eschew refrigeration.  The produce will have been sourced from within driving distance and as fresh as can be.  It is situated in the Tuscolano area of Rome, South-East, not far from the Cinecittà film studios.  It is a very lively and populous area of Rome and serviced by the B Metro Line (underground).  My husband once shocked me by explaining that the population of the Tuscolano is greater than that of Florence!  The Tuscolana Road starts just after San Giovanni and goes all the way to Frascati.  In parts, it is built over an ancient road, far more ancient than the famed Via Appia, and the road in question is the Via Latina.  The neighbourhood itself, however, was built entirely after the Second World War and so is somewhat ‘modern’ by Roman standards, and not exactly ‘cosy’ or historically interesting, or even – let’s face it – particularly attractive.  Just a lot of modern apartment buildings flanking a main road. Practical (lots of shops and well connected to the centre) but not exactly charming.

I can’t see central Rome residents going out of their way to come to this store; central Rome residents are almost afraid to leave their 3-kilometer comfort zone, it’s really quite amusing.   When they find out I live in Frascati (a perfectly respectable commuting distance of 17 kilometers to Termini Station, and a 30 minute train ride unless I am driving) they open their mouths wide as if I were talking about outer Siberia.  But the San Giovanni residents shouldn’t have too much of a problem?  Little by little, it seems to me, this Tuscolano neighbourhood has been drawing attention to itself, gastronomy wise, for a few years now.  Not least because of the famous butcher Roberto Liberati, who has now opened a second store at Rome Termini Station’s eatery section Mercato Centrale (http://luckypeach.com/inside-roberto-liberatis-butcher-shop/), for the former Michelin-starred restaurant il Giuda Ballerino (which is now housed in the Hotel Bernini) and for ‘Sforno’, considered to be one of the best pizza places in all of Rome.  I am told that Ali Baba is one of Rome’s top-end Kebab destination and that too is in the Tuscolano area.  The Tuscolana fishmonger, Pescheria Marcello, is considered to be one of the best in the Capital.  So there.  This quartiere might be a parvenu compared with the rest of Roman neighbourhoods but its palate is honing itself in a very good gastronomic direction.

The first thing that struck me about the Piccola Bottega Merenda was its modest size, made all the more noticeable by the amount of happy shoppers in it, both young and old.  Secondly, as I said, its charcuterie and cheese selection !  Fabulous!  They offered reblochon and red Leiscestershire besides other good Italian cheeses, not so easy to find in Rome.  And then there were the vegetables.  I especially fell in love with the wild salads, the ‘misticanza’.  Time was at a premium for me, nevertheless, since I had parked the car in such a cavalier fashion, hence I just got on with my shopping, paid, and quickly hurried away.  I was unable to take more than a couple of photos of the cheese and salumi selection, one of them pictured above, the other below.

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When I got home … I felt so enthusiastic, so full of energy.  All I wanted to do was cook the gorgeous vegetables.

1I had bought: carrots, artichokes, fennel, potatoes, and wild salads – all of them blissfully in season.  From another greengrocer’s, afterwards, I had also then bought bell peppers (capsicum), courgettes, aubergines and basil … I hope that Giorgio and Giulia won’t admonish me for this unusual, for me,  seasonal breach in food shopping.  All I knew was that I had an incredible yearning to make some favourite warm-weather recipes.

3I finished these carrots with chopped parsely before serving them the next day.

Braised fennel … béchamel sauce.

8Finished off with plenty of freshly grated parmigiano.

9Sweet and sour courgettes, with raisins and pine kernels, mint leaves just before serving.  Sicilian style.

Deep fried, in olive oil, slices of aubergine.  I had placed the slices in salted water for an hour.  And then squeezed them very hard and patted them dry with kitchen paper just before frying.

4While they were frying I was making a tomato sauce.

And then it was time to assemble the parmigiana di melanzane, the aubergine, mozzarella, parmigiano, basil, and tomato sauce layered dish.  Once assembled, it needs to be baked but is better eaten at room temperature.  Even the next day.

14The beloved potato cake of Campania … known as the ‘gattò di patate’, with cheese and ham in it.  Also needing to be baked.

I enveloped the two large red peppers in aluminium foil and roasted those too.

15And that’s what the stove top looked like, the night before the evening after.  My yearning had been satisfied.

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The roasted peppers were finshed off with garlic, olive oil and chopped parsely.

17I made a pasta sauce with the artichokes (including garlic, evoo, sausages and white wine) …

19Buffalo mozzarella alongside some unseasonal cherry tomatoes ….

18Chicken and veal meatballs. Gozzaroddi.

19aWild salad leaf insalata.  Notice the yellow flowers.

And last, making no sense whatsoever geographically …

20A Persian rice and chicken recipe, with saffron and sour cherries. Chicken Tah-Chin.

Our guests brought good cheer and wines and flowers and two saintly children and all in all it was a lovely evening.  The menu made no sense whatsoever but there was a ‘sensibility’ within me, a deep desire to cook and nurture, that was above any rationality.  Le coeur a ses raisons che la raison ne connait pas (The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of …).

IMG_4310And what lovely flowers.  Spring is indeed in the air.

P.S.  If you are interested in any of the above recipes, here are some links.

https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2011/04/19/a-royal-wedding-and-a-misspelled-cake-gatto-di-patate/

https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2011/08/15/sugo-time-and-the-going-is-easy-how-to-make-the-basic-tomato-sauce/

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

https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2014/03/12/parents-in-law-recovery-and-the-importance-of-a-good-meal-pasta-con-carciofi-salsiccia-e-cipolla/

https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2014/04/05/testaccio-market-wrong-reason-right-recipe-courgettes-sweet-and-sour-caponata-di-zucchine/

http://fae-magazine.com/2012/09/25/tah-chin/

Popeye’s Spinach Patties – Spinacine

The word for meatball in Italian is ‘polpetta’; and the English word ‘pulp’ must surely be related to it, as in when you beat someone ‘to a pulp’.  Pulp as in ‘mushy’.  But while a meatball always contains meat, duh!, in the English speaking world, in Italy the eclectic polpetta can be made using vegetable-only ingredients, or even just bread and cheese. Number one.

Number two. And whereas in English a hamburger contains only meat (unless it’s a veggie burger), the north Italian equivalent of a ground-meat patty (which is what a burger is after all) is called a ‘Svizzera’.  ‘Svizzere’ were what people bought at the butchers before the word ‘hamburger’ become common even in Italy, probably towards the 1980s.

Kyle Phillips wrote the following in a blog post dated 2013 from “Cosa Bolle in Pentola”: “Why the Milanese should have called a ground beef patty a Svizzera is beyond me, but they did, and Svizzere were already quite common in Italy before companies like McD’s began to introduce American-style fast food.  And now in every Italian supermarket and butcher’s shop you will find a considerable variety of ready-to-cook Svizzere, including moderately fatty beef, lean beef, beef with pork, beef with turkey, beef with chicken, and many Svizzere with different kinds of herbs and flavorings mixed through the meat.”

Further down in this post, he provides a link for the recipe of a Svizzera with spinach – the first time I see the marrying of meat and spinach in one fell swoop.  Sadly, Kyle Phillips is no longer with us and I cannot consult him as to how we came to have a dish called “spinacina” in the single, and “spinacine” in the plural.   As you might have guessed even though you may not speak Italian, the word ‘spinacine’ is based on the Italian word for spinach.  A spinacina is a patty made up of minced/ground chicken (or chicken and turkey) to which spinach is added.

I reckon that Popeye has something to do with this. We have all grown up thinking that spinach is good for us, and contains a lot of iron.  It is just part of our culture.  But – and there is the rub – how do  you get people to eat more spinach, especially if they don’t like it?

Thus, I also reckon that some adult wanted to entice a child to eat more spinach and that an obliging butcher invented this dish in order to come to the aid of an exasperated mother who couldn’t get her child to eat greens.

Last, I reckon that  an Italian industrial ready-to-cook meat producing company (Aia) launched them country-wide in 1990 in order to a) help  busy or time-strapped mothers prepare a quick, child-friendly dinner and b) reassure said mother that the child would also be ‘forced’ to eat some healthy spinach thereby.  I suppose the idea behind the spinacina is that this patty is so delicious, the kid will love it even if it doesn’t like spinach.

I went through a phase myself where I thought it normal to buy ready-to-cook or frozen foods for my young children: chicken cordon bleu, fish fingers, or frozen crispy pancakes (called ‘sofficini’ in Italian) but I don’t remember ever buying these spinacini.  I did, once, go to the bother of making a chicken cordon bleu at home for the sake of my favourite son, now grown up (https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2014/10/25/thoreau-and-a-chicken-cordon-bleu/) and so when I came across a recipe for making spinacine the other day, I thought to myself: well why not? what it boils down to, basically, is chicken and spinach polpette. And my favourite daughter, who loves spinach, is bound to like ’em.

What I can say, having tasted one, is that they are definitely worth the effort and not hard to make at all.  The ones I made were fried in plenty of very hot vegetable oil and I know a lot of people hate to fry.  The alternative is to place the spinacine on a well-oiled sheet of parchment paper and cook them in the oven.  If they turn out a bit dry, you can always serve them with some kind of sauce or …. ssssh … ketchup.

Have a go!

Ingredients: 400g minced/ground chicken (I used chicken thighs and got my butcher to mince the meat for me); 150g fresh spinach leaves; 40-60g grated parmesan: 1 egg for the mix and 2 eggs for the eggwash; 2 serving spoons of Italian breadcrumbs (otherwise use panko) plus more for breading; salt and pepper, some freshly grated nutmeg.  Oil for frying: I used groundnut/peanut oil which has an excellent smoke point.

This will be enough to serve six moderately hungry people and four rather hungry ones.

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Do not wilt the spinach, no need.  But do wash it, naturally, and pat dry.

5Place the spinach on the bottom of the food processor.  Sprinkle salt and pepper and the nutmeg.

6Then add one egg and the parmesan.

7And finally the breadcrumbs and the chicken.

8Pulse the ingredients until you get the texture you prefer and everything is well combined.

9Here is one huge spinach and chicken polpetta !  So the thing to do is divide it into six parts.

10Cut it in half and then cut each half into three parts and roll them into polpette – six polpette in all.

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Once you have the six polpette, flatten them into an oblong shape with rounded edges.

12It’s actually quite fun, moulding these spinacine.

13They should be about 1.5cm thick … i.e. not too thick otherwise they won’t cook properly in the middle, and you don’t want to eat raw chicken.

Time to bread the spinacine.

14Two beaten eggs in one bowl, and the breadcrumbs in the other.

15Dip the spinacina into the eggwash first …

16And then bread it.  Press firmly.

17At this point, if you wanted, you could freeze the spinacine, to eat on another day.

19Instead, I put them in the fridge for half an hour, so that they would firm up a bit.

Time to fry the spinacine.

20Heat the oil in a large and deep enough frying pan.

21Get yourself ready.  Have a plate with  plenty of kitchen paper on it nearby.

22Use a slotted spoon.

23Use the slotted spoon to slide the spinacine into the hot oil.

24Let the spinacine cook on one side for about two minutes.

25Then, because they are quite ‘heavy’, use two spoons or two forks to turn the spinacine over on the other side.

26See how nice and golden the already fried side is.  Cook the other side for less time – about one minute will do.  Use the slotted spoon, again, to transfer the cooked spinacine to the plate.

27Here they are … resting on the kitchen paper, any excess oil being absorbed by it.

28But to be honest, they really weren’t greasy at all.  And that is because I followed the golden rules of frying: the oil must be at least two inches deep, or deep enough for the food to ‘swim’ in it, and the oil must be hot enough when you put the food into it.  If you haven’t got a thermometer, and I don’t often bother with one, you can know that the oil is hot enough if, when you put the thin end of a wooden spoon inside the frying pan, the oil ‘bubbles’ cheerfully around it.  Last, do not cook all at once.  Every time you lower food into the frying pan, the temperature naturally goes down – so fry the foods a little at a time.

29I had spinach leftover which I wilted.  I put it on the plate, cold and pressed, together with some nice tomatoes and some mozzarella.  Seasoned with olive oil and salt.

30It was a very nice combination. I sprinkled some salt over the spinacina and a few drops of lemon juice too.

31I cut the spinacina in half to show you what it looks like inside.

Anyway, just for the record, favourite daughter happened to be home and had these for dinner last night and pronounced them very good.  She took the remaining two to work with her today.

P.S. The recipe I read called for 40g grated parmesan.  I think that a wee big more is advisable, which is why under ‘ingredients’ I wrote: 40-60g grated parmesan.