Pasta alla Checca

Following the worst May in Italy since 1957, with plummeting temperatures and buckets of rain, the weather is finally beginning to make seasonal sense.

And I can’t wait for it to be hot enough to  make pasta alla checca.

Here is a link, containing yet another link – a little bit like those Russian Matryoshka dolls – from long ago.  I read both posts and am glad to report that no editing or tweaking was necessary.  That’s the beauty of the pasta alla checca recipe.  Its utter simplicity.

https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2013/07/07/liar-liar-pants-on-fire-pasta-alla-checca-demographic/

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A Non-Recipe Recipe with Ricotta

Some recipes don’t call for much work.  This is one of them.

Avail yourselves of the best quality ricotta you can find – preferably ewe’s milk ricotta as opposed to cow’s  milk – and press it firmly into a baking dish.

Bake in a hot oven (200 degrees Celsius, shall we say?) until it ‘sets’, until it forms a golden crust.  This can take anything between 20 and 40 minutes depending on the amount of ricotta and the temperamental variations of any home oven.

Once it is out of the oven, drizzle some olive oil all over the surface and add generous amounts of black pepper.

Serve.

Next time you are asked to contribute something for a potluck dinner, send grateful thoughts my way as other guests dig into this ricotta and utter exclamations of pleasure.  Ah the delights of simplicity !

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Soufflé Olé

Below you can read a post I wrote about soufflé making on my previous blog (My Home Food That’s Amore). I wrote the post almost seven years ago but nothing has changed in the way I make it.  I continue to like its relative simplicity and everyone seems to like it.

The Suave Soufflé: Food that gets Blown into Deliciousness

The poor soufflé is saddled with a bad reputation for being difficult to make.  I would say that a superb soufflé might be arduous to produce but that an ordinary, jolly good one is easy peasy and should definitely be included in the midweek supper menu, especially when the weather starts sending out signals of nippiness.  Alan Davidson in the Oxford Compantion to Food [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 1999 (p. 735), gives us the following historical vital statistics on the soufflé:

Souffle – A French word which literally means “puffed up,” is a culinary term in both French and English (and used in many other languages) for a light, frothy dish, just stiff enough to hold its shape, and which may be savory or sweet, hot or cold.The basic hot souffle has as its starting point a roux–a cooked mixture of flour and butter…This type of souffle was a French invention of the late 18th century. Beauvilliers was making souffles possibly as early as 1782 (though he did not publish his L’Art du cusinier until 1814).

Recipes for various kinds appear in Louis Ude’s The French Cook of 1813, a work which promises a “new method of giving good and extremely cheap fashionable suppers at routs and soirees. Later, in 1841, Careme’s Patissier Royal Parisien goes into great detail on the technique of making souffles, from which it is clear that cooks had been having much trouble with souffles that collapsed. The dish acquired a reputation for difficulty and proneness to accidents which it does not really deserve…There are some Ukranian and Russian dishes of the hot souffle type, independently evolved and slightly different in composition.”

I owe my basic soufflé recipe to Delia Smith and have always found it to be very reliable (thank you Delia!).  The BEST thing about a soufflé is that you can prepare most of it, if need be, the day before — which is an excellent idea for when you are having people over to dinner.  The mixture can be doled out into individual ramekins instead of a single oven dish and that makes it quicker to serve too, as well as making the presentation an engaging one.   You can add all sorts of puréed vegetables or other ingredients to the basic soufflé mix and chime in with whatever is in season: squash, courgettes, artichokes and mushrooms for instance.

This is going to be quite a long post, be warned.  But once mastered, the steps prove to be very intuitive and easily remembered.

Here are the ingredients: 6 eggs, 200g cheese, 300ml milk, 50g butter, 50g flour, a pinch of cayenne pepper, a pinch of mustard powder, a twist of freshly grated nutmeg (not shown in the photo) and salt and pepper.  This will be enough to feed 6-8 people.  If, instead, there are going to be 3-4 to dinner, and there is plenty of other food on the menu, then use half of these recommended doses.  Regarding what cheese to use: use a mixture of cheeses if you like, why not, and bear in mind cheddar, emmenthal, gruyère, fontina and parmesan.

The first thing to do is turn the oven on, at 190°C and then grease your ramekins or soufflé dish with butter.  Set aside. (PS – the oven setting should NOT be convection – the air blowing around the oven would not be hepful for soufflés.)

Then, start the recipe by cracking the eggs and separating the yolks from the whites in different bowls.  Place the bowl containing the egg whites in the fridge — this will make it easier to whisk them later on.

Place the flour, butter, cayenne pepper and mustard powder in a saucepan.  Arm yourself with a whisk and a wooden spoon, you are going to need them.

Switch on the heat and very soon it will start looking like this … use the whisk to mix all the ingredients and cook for about 1 minute (or less).

Now add the milk.  A little at a time, using one hand, and whisking away with the other hand.  It might look ‘lumpy’ at first, but don’t worry.  Keep whisking and it will all meld beautifully.

See?  Now is the time to switch to the wooden spoon.

Stir away to cook the mixture (roux) for about 2 minutes.  Add salt and pepper.

Now add the cheese.  Ahem … what you see in the photo is not quite ‘proper’.  The proper thing to do is to grate the cheese first — but I was in a hurry that evening.  No matter.  The cheese did melt eventually, it just took longer that’s all.

Here is the proof that the cubes of cheese did melt!  Now switch off the heat.

Beat the egg yolks well with a fork or whisk and add them a little at a time to the roux. In order for the egg yolks to combine perfectly with the roux, it is a good idea to add them one at a time.  That is the ‘proper’ thing to do.  Ahem … I wasn’t in a ‘proper’ mood that evening, evidently, and added the beaten egg yolks all together.

But I did stir away with great vigour and zest with my trusty wooden spoon!

All combined and golden and gleaming.  I call this the end of “Phase I”.

Phase II:

Take the bowl containing the egg whites out of the fridge and get hold of your electric beater.  You could try whisking them by hand … you could … but I wouldn’t advise it, too much elbow work unless you are an expert at it.

Add a pinch of salt to the egg whites and then whisk away until you get the cloudy, foamy, frothy peaks that are going to put the souffle into your soufflé!

And here we are, ready to combine the two.

Start by putting a large spoonful of the beaten egg whites into the golden roux and mixing well.  This will loosen it up a little.

Then mix the whole lot together — but very gently! you don’t want the bubbles of air that make the egg whites stiff to lose their fluffiness.  When combining, remember to stir the spatula or wooden spoon (whatever you prefer) in a downward-to-upward movement as opposed to a round-and-round movement.  This protects those precious bubbles of air.

Then pour the mixture into the butter-greased soufflé bowl – in this case it was an oval pyrex dish, very 1970s!

Give it one final gentle stir.

The ‘proper’ temperature for cooking the soufflé is, apparently, 180°C — but experience has taught me that on my oven at least, the closer the temperature is to 200°C the better.  Every oven is quirky in its own way, so the best advice I can give you is to try it at 190°C (I’m very good at compromise).

Cook until ready.  How often have I read that in a recipe and been very irritated with the recipe writer for not being more specific!  All I can say is that, again, depending on the temperamental quirkiness of your own oven, this soufflé can take any time between 25 and  35 minutes.  Since it is considered the height of tabu to open the oven door while the soufflé is cooking — I would advise that you opt for a sensible 30 minute cooking time.

Here is the soufflé served with spinach.

Here is another soufflé I made in another pyrex dish.

Served with salad that time …

And that is the end of Soufflé Story for today except for one super time-saving and mood-enhancing tip, and that is that most of the soufflé can be prepared the day before!  Yes! And that is very good news if you are having people over to dinner and want to spend more time talking with them than you do preparing food in the kitchen (that’s what I meant by mood enhancing).  On Day 1, follow the instructions all the way to Phase I.  Then put everything in the fridge, covering both the egg-white bowl and the roux with clingfilm/saran wrap/plastic food wrapping.  On Day 2, take the roux out of the fridge at least one hour before cooking time (it has to be at room temperature, in other words).  Proceed with Phase II.  Don’t I deserve a medal for telling you that? I think I do!

POST SCRIPTUM – SOUFFLE WITH SQUASH

The idea was to add pumpkin to my cheese soufflé.  I poached the pumpkin in milk, adding garlic and sage leaves too.

I also added some olive oil and a strange salt I picked up, made with maple syrup.  Use ordinary salt by all means!  Those little beads scattered on the pumpkin are coriander — about one teaspoon.Once the squash was cooked, I mashed it up with a wooden spoon first …And then passed it through a food mill to get the texture I was after — a very smooth one.  I tasted it again and then added a bit more salt and pepper.  I was cooking 10 ramekins and so added 10 spoons of this pumpkin puré to the soufflé roux at the end of Phase I.

Previously I had placed fairly thin slices of the pumpkin in the oven, and cooked them for 15 minutes.  I also cut up some pancetta and cooked that until crispy.  When the ramekins of soufflé came out of the oven, I placed the slices of pumpkin and the pancetta on top of each one.  I was going to garnish the ramekins with fresh sage leaves but my friend Diane had the brilliant idea of  coating them with flour and cooking them quickly in olive oil for an added dash of both taste and texture, as well as presentation.

This photo gives you an idea.  If you look closely, you can see the pancetta, the slices of oven-cooked slices of squash and the sage leaves.  All in all, a very nice autumnal soufflé!

Cynthia Bertelson on French Food and Why I fear the Demise of the Contorno

I usually aim to make my posts light-hearted.  There’s too much gloom and doom in the world as it is so why would anyone want to read anything ‘heavy’ when it comes to a food blog.  There is a writer I very  much admire called Cynthia Bertelson; she knows so much about the history of food and I love reading her articles.  Recently she posted one entitled  “Speaking of France” in which she poses the question “Why is traditional French food so terribly unpopular at the moment?”  

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If you are interested in food in general, and how it affects our society, our cultures, our habits, I would urge you to read it.  It’s very interesting and not that long.  My comment on it I think is actually longer, tee hee!

I know that the only constant is change as the Eastern philosophies have been telling us for thousands of years but I’m not one for change for change’s sake.  If you are on my blog, right now, reading this … it must mean that you have even a passing interest in good food and eating well.  I want to encourage people to cook at home more, which is why I go to the trouble of taking so many photos, step by step, as I cook the dish.  Home cooking should not be difficult! or take too long! Or cost an arm and a leg!  Don’t let all those TV programmes and Instgram-sham hoodwink you into thinking otherwise.  Presentation is of course a beautiful thing but the content of the food is always more important.  End of Sermon.

Here is the link to Cynthia’s article and below is how I commented on it: https://gherkinstomatoes.com/2019/02/23/speaking-of-france

QUOTE: “I think that people now forget that nearly all cooking techniques we use in European countries and North America do indeed stem from France. Wealthy people and nobles from these countries did not eat the same way as their poorer fellow people and their chefs were either French or trained in French cuisine (the Russians too). In the region of Campania and the island of Sicily, which were under Spanish inspired aristocratic rule for a while, one of the kings married Marie Antoinette’s sister Caroline. This inspired a sortie of French chefs to this part of Italy, and their name was prefaced by the title “Monsieur”. The Italian pronounciation in the kitchen had a bit of trouble getting it just right and in the end it turned into “Monzù”. And the more learned Italians know of and still speak of the “Cucina dei Monzu”. Ironically, historically previous to all this, it was the Italian Caterina de Medici who brought Italian cooking skills to France. But the modern cooking techniques that are vital for good results in the kitchen were definitely developed in France. Personally, I have seen Italian cuisine morph into something that I have no trouble admitting is culinarily of a higher quality … but at the same time worries me. It’s turning into what I call French-style cuisine using Italian ingredients – could be dangerous in the long run because the whole point of traditional Italian cuisine is that it be simple, easy to prepare on the whole, and with few ingredients – which is why it has been handed down from generation to generation no problem. Now that the standards in terms of ‘technique’ keep rising, with restaurants presenting food more and more in what I call the instagram-obsessive-compulsive-disorder way, and TV food programmes aiding and abetting the trend, it may be that people in Italy will cook less, meaning find cooking more time consuming. And this might well lead to less home cooking, sigh. One of the saddest thing I notice in Italian restaurants now is the demise of the vegetable side plate, the “contorno”, which had to be ordered separately, giving the customer the choice of what he or she preferred. The vegetables are now increasingly presented on the same plate as the main course, the way I’ve always seen it done in the UK and in North America. The word for jazzing up a traditional dish in Italian is “rivisitato”, translated literally this means “revisited”, meaning ‘updated’. The reason for ‘updating’ many traditional Italian dishes is that they relied on a heavier fat content, I presume, or overcooked the ingredients – so the idea of improving on the original is not a bad thing per se. It’s all the other frills that bother me, the lengthier gilding-the-lily procedures and the disappearance of an actual name for the dish. Nowadays, the dish has to be described, listing all the ingredients. Who the hell is going to remember it ten months from now, let along ten years from now? “Rivisitato” is the Italian answer to yesteryear’s Nouvelle Cuisine.

We all know of the dangers of fast food … we should now start awakening our senses to the danger of haute cuisine techniques muscling its way into the kitchens in our homes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cast of Characters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The entrance to Giancarlo’s Tearoom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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THE AFTERNOON TEA – PREPPING

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

Again, Happy New Year Everyone !

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

Putting the Posh in Peas (and Chicken)

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

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

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

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

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

2Sprinkle salt over the chicken.

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

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

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

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

Okay?

And now on with cooking the chicken.

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

And now let us deal with the peas.

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

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

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

A lot of setting aside, isn’t there.

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

18Slicing the phyllo pastry into ribbons and …

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

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

Time to plate up.

21Step one.  The pea mash.

22Step two: the unmashed peas.

23Step there: a shower of crispy phyllo pastry.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

My birthday present to him?

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

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