On Matters of Batter and Fried Chicken

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RECIPE and TIPS

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

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

Batter Ingredients:

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

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

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

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

(4)Breadcrumbs: optional

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

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

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

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

OR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SERVE.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

EYHC4361Frying away …

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

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

IMG_7609

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

POST SCRIPTUM

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

 

 

Another Meatloaf, “Little Women” and Tailgating it in Rome

For once I shall do things the other way around, providing an intro to the recipe and ingredients first and writing my little ‘story’, the context, after.

If you want to spruce up an ordinary meatloaf, present it encased in pastry.

IMG_6639

Instead of Beef Wellington, you can dub it Meatloaf Wellington.  I chanced upon this recipe on the internet and am providing a link below.  It’s in Italian but no worries – even if you don’t speak the language, everything is so straightforward, you’ll get enough of an understanding to get started right away.

Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gNlvwwC0e88

One of the reasons I did want to get started is that the last time I had made a meatloaf it had been a complete disaster, a ‘beautiful catastrophe’ as Zorba the Greek would have remarked (see my previous post harking back to it).  So I’m a bit sensitive that way, you see.  I am glad to report that my recent attempt turned out pretty well and that I was able to enjoy the leftovers as a kind of picnic in Rome the following day.

IMG_6663

INGREDIENTS

500g of minced meat, 2 eggs, parsely, salt and pepper, 2-3 tablespoons of grated parmesan cheese, slices of cheese that will melt easily, slices of ordinary ham, slices of parma ham (optional), salt and pepper, sheets of ready-bought pastry.  An extra egg for coating the pastry.

I added plenty of freshly grated nutmeg and a scattering of lemon zest.  Also, I made my own pastry because the kind sold around here contains palm oil or hydrogenated fats and other nasties.  For that I needed 600g of flour, 300g of butter, salt and enough cold water to bring it all together. I did what one’s not supposed to do and that is use a blender.  I put the ball of very sticky dough in the freezer for one hour before using it.

Below is my neighbour and bestest friend Rossella … helping me roll out the home-made pastry.

IMG_6631

The video says to cook it for about 40 minutes at 200°C, let it rest and allow any liquid to drain away.  Once cooled, the meatloaf is encased in the pastry and cooked again for half an hour.  I would say that that is too much cooking and the meat dries out somewhat.  Next time, I shall limit the cooking to 25 minutes the first time.

My dinner guests enjoyed the meatloaf but we were so caught up in our conversations that we could have had cheese on toast and it wouldn’t have mattered.  Wine always helps of course (that is if you like drinking wine).  The essence of a dinner with friends is the banter and laughter and interruption and changing of subjects and not wanting to go away even when it’s very late.  But good food always helps.  Good food to put you in the mood.

The following ‘story’ is dedicated to all my lovely girlfriends, wherever you might be in the world, but boys are very welcome to read it too !

LITTLE WOMEN AND ME

Well, for starters my name is Josephine (I was named after my Italian grandmother Giuseppina) but everyone calls me Jo.

I grew up with two sisters, not three.  And I was a bit of a tomboy, as they used to say in those days.  I didn’t like it when I had to wear a frilly dress to go to a birthday party, I was always told not to ruin it which of course meant I couldn’t run around too much or climb a tree.  I much preferred wearing shorts.  I’ve always been a barefoot baby and liked nothing better than to take my shoes off as soon as I could.  Like any other woman, I adore shoes but my love for going barefooted has never abated.  I used to love running and playing with the boys, and was very ‘physical’ even, and would get into a fight if provoked.  Dolls weren’t really my ‘thing’.   Building huts was more fun.

The years I speak of, from about the age of five to twelve, I grew up in Karachi, which was then West Pakistan, followed by Teheran, and then Dhaka, which was then East Pakistan before it became Bangladesh.  My Scottish stepfather worked for a pharmaceutical company and that’s how we moved around a lot.  With the job came cushy houses, beautiful ones at that, with large verandahs and even a swimming pool sometimes.  Plush lawns and scented flowers.  And a team of people to help run the house – servants they were called then, or ‘the help’ I believe in the States?  The lap of luxury sort of thing.  Except there were many amenities that were not available in those countries, during those years.  One of which was TV.  I remember when a television set first appaered in our house in Dhaka, I would have been close to eleven.  There was only one channnel and  featured two English speaking programmes a day – the Man from UNCLE, the Lucy Show, come to mind.  And no TV on a Monday for some reason.  Perhaps a film once a week?  And there were power cuts on a regular basis, very often interrupting a TV show.

All this to say that we children had to entertain ourselves.  My two sisters were much younger than I, so the interaction was perforce one-sided, with me being the bossy older sister.  There was no question that I loved them, and we are incredibly close to this day, and we all slept in the same bedroom.  But I was bored, bored, bored so much of the time.  And lonely.  I craved company of my own age.  I did have friends, I did, but it wasn’t as if I could walk over to their house, I had to be driven their either by my mother or by the driver.  It had to be arranged, it couldn’t be spontaneous.  Also, friends would leave, their parents moving to another country, and that was always very sad.  I’ve never got over parting from friends.

I remember complaining about my boredom to my mother and her unruffled response was to tell me that she? She never got bored when she was a child.  Not helpful.  And so I’d invent games like the time I was a farmer … Robin Hood … an air hostess in an aeroplane.  After seeing the film The Sound of Music, I became Maria of course, bursting into song and prancing about.  I’d put classical records on and pretend I was a ballerina. I really enjoyed games at school and was good at all of them and just loved to beat the boys.  I loved going to school because there, finally, was some company for me.  It was called Farm View and there is a facebook page now.  It was a small international English speaking school and I was in my element, loving all subjects from arithmetic to history to painting to English Literature.  And French, of course.  When eventually I went to boarding school in England, I was astonished to discover that I was at least two years ahead of my French class.   But that’s another story, culture shock, stock and barrel.

Also, I enrolled in the Indian dancing lessons, with the lovely anklets that had bells on them.  The headmistress, Mrs Coventry, apparently nearly had a hairy fit when she learned that I was going to be performing an Indian dance as part of the school pantomime that year and was duly impressed to discover that I turned out to be a very graceful dancer.   My mother, bless her, thought I’d find solace in piano lessons and she drove me once a week to the teacher’s house.  We didn’t have a piano at home, so I would practise for half an hour before the actual lesson, which always included a cup of tea and a biscuit.  I enjoyed my lessons, very much.  When I was growing up, tea (the drinking of together with biscuits or a slice a cake or whatever) was an everyday ‘thing’, a precious pause during the day.

What I really enjoyed was reading.  The school had a library and took us to see films (old black-and-white films at that) at the British Council, which also had a library.  Oh the joy of reading!  It was the one thing that salvaged me from the loneliness, the boredom of an otherwise privileged upbringing.  I became a book worm.  I remember repairing to the bathroom to finish reading a book until well into the wee hours, shutting the door so I wouldn’t wake my sisters up with the light. I’d wake up bleary eyed the next morning but oh so satisfied.  My choice of reading was not exactly intellectual.  There was Noddy and fairy tales, the Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew but Enid Blyton most of all.  Golly!, how I loved the Famous Five and other adventure stories. One of my teachers, Mrs Chowdury, had gone to university with Enid Blyton’s daughter apparently and I was sooooo impressed.  Daddy used to take me with him to the equivalent of a mall in our neighbourhood, called the D.I.T. Market.  Well, when I say ‘mall’, think small bazaar, really, and a dozen or so shops.  Any excuse to get out of the house and, also, a chance to buy some comics.  At the time there used to be a wonderful American series of comics under the heading “Classics Illustrated”.  They featured adaptations of literary classics such as Les MiserablesMoby DickHamlet, and The Iliad.  Wikipedia says “Recognizing the appeal of early comic books, Russian-born publisher Albert Lewis Kanter (1897–1973) believed he could use the new medium to introduce young and reluctant readers to “great literature”. I well remember The Last of the Mohican, Lorna Doone, many Shakespeare plays, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Last Days of Pompei, Moby Dick, The Three Muskateers.  AbeBooks.com says “We will never know how many youngsters who read Classic Comics and Classics Illustrated are now confirmed bibliophiles with homes full of literature, but we suspect the figure is high.”  Well, they caught me all right.  I can think of nothing sadder than a house without books.

And those books I did read, as well as the comics, were fodder for my imagination and I would often re-enact scenes from them in my make-believe world of play, not unlike the four sisters in Little Women.  Despite the tropical heat and the monsoons, you wouldn’t believe how ‘cold’ it could get in my rendition of Heidi’s mountain idyll.  My mother couldn’t understand why I insisted on amping up the air-conditioning to freezing levels behind her back in our bedroom.  Little did she know.  We only drank powdered milk in Dhaka but to me it was goats milk, of course.  Pollyanna played a pretty important part too.  To this day, I love the film with Hayley Mills, I still have the DVD.  The last time I watched it was probably ten years ago but to me it will never grow old or become outdated.  The punch line: if you go looking for evil in this world, you are sure to find it.

Of all these books and their heroes and heroines, however, it was Jo from Little Women that has accompanied me always.  Something about her spirit, her resolve, her human frailty coupled with her sensitivity and can-do enthusiasm made an indelible mark upon me.  I grew up with two sisters, went to an all-girls boarding school, and at one time had mainly women colleagues when I was working at the UN in Rome … I dearly love women and am a born feminist.  Yet, for all of Jo’s yang personality that I can identify with, it is with Beth that I have one huge trait in common.  I am a home body.  I don’t really crave ‘adventure’ as it were.  I wish all my friends and family could live close by.  And I always did want to marry and have children.  The follow-up book, Jo’s Boys, really touched a chord.  And for years and years I dreamed of opening a small school, where children would be treated with tender, loving, creative care.  And, such are the coincidences in life, I did marry a professor of sorts, just like Jo!  I’m still waiting to launch my inspirational cooking school … we’ll see.

In the end, it was cooking that became a way of life for me.  Cooking became my ‘adventure’.  And that’s how I came across the video recipe for this blog post.

PREPARING THE MEAT LOAF WITH ROSSELLA

It is Sunday and I am having guests to dinner, my favourite cousins and a favourite friend. I went to work the day before, a pasta class at the Minardi Winery, which ended just after 3 p.m.  After which I go to do the shopping and get home just before 5 p.m.   I eat something, whatever I can find in the fridge.  And I start preparing some stuff for the next day.  At 8 p.m. I shower and get dressed and go to a dear friend’s 70th birthday party, quite the bash, at least 60 guests.  By midnight I’m falling off my perch and regretfully leave at around quarter past.  Unheard of for me, I am one of those who ‘could have danced all night’ but not last Saturday.

I go to bed at around 1 a.m. but instead of falling into a deep slumber, end up tossing and turning all night.  I wake up all sleepy and slow and realise that I am going to need help to get through the day.

So I call upon my next door neighbour, Rossella.  Our flats are on the same landing.  We try and have coffee together regularly, the way we used to, but sometimes we don’t see each other for three weeks in a row now.  That’s how life has become for us, for us all, always busy, always in a hurry, strapped for time.

Though not obsessed with cooking the way I am, Rossella is no slouch in the kitchen and is also a tidy cook.  One thing at a time versus my 101 things going on at the same time.  Steady.  She was more than happy to oblige.  I do not mean this in any condescending way whatsoever but … Rossella, like many women whose children have left home and are without a partner or husband, is lonely.  Heck I get lonely and I do have a husband!  Our flat seems so quiet without the children.  Rossella is very capable and has run family clothes shops; her parents’ shop in Rome was the first to bring La Perla lingerie to the capital, it was quite posh.  She and her sister had to close it down a couple of years ago, after a full 80 years of operation.  She was always a working woman.  She keeps herself busy in many ways but … but if you are a home lover (like Beth!) and there is just you in the house … well, it can get veeery quiet.  Very.  Cooking together is soothing.  We spent a good three hours together in the morning, and another nearly two in the late afternoon. Indeed the meatloaf, except for the pastry, is all her doing. Grazie Rossella!

IMG_6649

Upon parting, we decided that we’ll meet once a month, with a few other girlfriends, to cook something new together.

The dinner went very well and, as I said, there were leftovers …

TAILGATING IN ROME ALONG THE TIBER

 

TKKG1948

I can’t remember exactly when we watched the 1994  “Little Women” film, featuring Wynona Ryder and Susan Sarandon etc. on television.  By ‘we’ I mean my daughter, my son and my husband.  Well, my daughter and I fell for it hook, line and sinker and I bought the DVD of course, or perhaps video tape, can’t remember.  And it became a sort of Christmas film-watching staple for us.  “Oh not Little Women again!”, my son her brother would wail.  And she and I would have to watch some appalling action film in revenge. The scene where Beth dies never fails to bring me to tears.  Just like the book, this film is moving without descending into the sludge of soppy.

So … did I fancy going to see the new Little Women film? my daughter asked me.  Sure.  Any excuse to see more of my daughter.  Not so sure I really want to see the film, but so what.  In Nancy Mitford’s “Love in a Cold Climate”, the character of Farve, the heroine’s uncle, is notoriously eccentric in his ways. And not one for conversation either.  Having to endure polite conversation at the dinner table, his hostess kindly enquires of him, in an attempt to break the ice, whether he has read any good book lately.  His retort is no.  He did read a book once.  White Fang.  It was so dashed good he never bothered to read another.

Well … that’s a little how I feel about the 1994 Little Women film.  It was so so very good, why go for a remake?

Anyway.  My daughter works in the centre of Rome (lucky gal) and parking comes at a premium. She finishes at 7 p.m. and the film started at 8 p.m.  There was going to be a bit of walking wherever I ended up parking which meant, which meant, that there wasn’t going to be much time to repair somewhere and get a bite to eat and a glass of wine.  Hmmm.  Head scratching and nose twitching, what to do, what to do?

Picnic.  In the car.  Like they tend to do in Great Britain on account of the weather.

It’s the only thing that would make sense.  I’d bring something for us to eat before the film so we wouldn’t starve.  Favourite daughter agreed.  What she did not know was that I had leftovers from the night before, by way of pastry-encased meatloaf.  She was expecting sandwiches and that sort of stuff.

I packed everything in the boot of the car, getting all eager beaver and into the spirit of things.  After faffing about for a good 15 minutes, my parking angel guided us to a perfect spot on the winding Lungotevere road, along the Tiber.  I just had to laugh.  We both had a good giggle.  We were almost directly opposite the imposing Palazzo Giustizia, St Peter’s lit-up dome just behind us, the Bulgari House with its garish lit-up roof-top palm tree about 100 yards down the road from us, and Piazza Navona also within spitting distance.  Glittering, beautiful, romantic, historic Rome lay all around us.  Just a few hundred yards away, also, was the princely Palazzo Borghese, which hosts the Spanish Embassy residence, where I had once had occasion to dine for a fundraiser.

And here I was tailgating it with my daughter, picnicking in the car.

QDGK8584

 

That said we had a jolly good dinner.   Please note, we ate inside the car and not in the middle of the road.  We ate off ceramic plates, with proper knives and forks.  We had the meatloaf en croute with a side dish of “broccoletti”.  I brought some ketchup along in case the meat turned out to be too dry (it wasn’t fortunately).  A couple of apples to finish off and, of course!!!, a glass of prosecco.

HJID4051

Louisa May Alcott would have approved, she would have understood.

 

 

 

 

Sausage Ragù and Polenta for a Potluck Supper

My mother is from Frascati so half of me is a local yokel, as I like to say.  But Frascati has an English-speaking international school which our children attended and through which I met so many lovely people from all corners of the earth.  The sad thing is that most of them, unless they were married to an Italian like me, had to leave Frascati after a while, and the good thing is that many of them return regularly to visit.  It was mainly via these expats that I got to know all about potlucks and have come to love them so much.   Potlucks are a staple when we ‘do’ a girls-only get together.

I don’t know about you but I think potluck suppers are super – everyone gets to contribute something and the total menu ends up being so more than the sum of its parts.  Potlucks often end up being veritable feasts and leftovers to take home are the proverbial icing on the cake.   True, those who don’t like,  or are are shy, about cooking are probably those who don’t relish the idea of having to ‘compete’ with the more accomplished home cooks – but in my experience of over twenty years, these same people soon get over it and look forward to really enjoying what their peers can produce.   Look: if you can’t cook you can always bring a rotisserie chicken (that’s my go-to contribution when I’m too busy to cook), or some good quality cured meats (think breasaola seasoned with olive oil and balsamic vinegar topped with a scattering of rocket/arugula leaves and thin wafers of parmesan), or various kinds of pizza, or a great salad, or a shop bought dessert.  No excuse, in other words.

For last night’s potluck, I decided I’d forgo the chicken routine (done that too often recently) and actually cook something, however strapped I knew I’d be for time.  Hence the idea of making polenta (easy peasy, just follow the intructions on the box) and topping it with a meat sauce that would not take hours and hours to cook.  As it so happened, I had half a jar of truffle butter in my fridge – a precious ‘leftover’ from a potluck that took place last May, that friend Sandy from Vancouver had bought. I decided it was high time that ingredient got used up, and what better way than to add it to the polenta.  If you like truffle, yum yum and more yum.

1

The other night was a very ‘Antipodean’ gathering of girlfriends.  Leanne, our hostess who lives in the nearby town of Marino, is from South Africa.  Liz (who like me lives in Frascati) and her daughter Simona are from Sydney, newbie Donna is also from Australia, and recently retired Alison is from New Zealand.  Michelle who sadly couldn’t join us for work reasons is a Brit but she was born in Australia too.  So Susy (also a Brit) and I were the only two gals from the northern Hemisphere.  Another friend who couldn’t make it was Debra, American, who was catching an early plane for Hong Kong the next morning (her Italian husband works there).  So you see how lucky I am.  Other great and regular potluck girlfriends include Irish Margaret, American Victoria, Danish Charlotte, the above -mentioned Canadian Sandy and last and certainly never least American Libby.  Who knows, maybe one day I’ll get around to writing a potluck-meal cookery book, based on our experience?

Anyway back to the recipe(s).

INGREDIENTS: Italian sausages (skinned), fresh tomatoes and tomato sauce (passata), some wine, an onion, some black pepper, some coriander, a couple of cloves, salt and pepper, a bayleaf, parsely.  For the vegetable stock: a carrot, a stick of celery and any other veggie of  your choice.

2

Start by making the vegetable stock – any veg you have in the fridge and simmer for at least 20 minutes in plenty of water.

3

I used six sausages – and skinned them before cooking them.

4An onion, the coriander, the pepper and the cloves.

5I had some red wine.  You could use white if you preferred.

6-e1570951256597.jpg7I had three tomatoes and I processed them.

8I also got to use some passata.

9A nice big heavy bottomed saucepan and enough olive oil to cover the entire surface.

LET’S GET COOKING

10Turn the heat on and use a potato masher to mash up the skinned sausages.

11The sausage meat tends to get caught up in the potato masher – so help untangle the meat with a sharp knife.

12Keep mashing the meat and swish it around too with the wooden spoon.  Cook it over a high heat for about 10 minutes.

13Add 1 ladle of the vegetable stock.  Cook it down – i.e. keep cooking until the stock evaporates. The whole idea of the stock is to keep the meat soft.

14Now add a splosh of red wine – and again, keep cooking so that the alcohol evaporates.

15We can turn the heat down now.  Add the minced onion , the spices and the bayleaf.  I sprinkled lots of salt over the onion before I mixed it in with the meat.

16I quickly added the fresh tomatoes and the passata.

17I combined all the ingredients and then added a couple of ladles of the vegetable stock. I placed the lid on the saucepan and let the sausage ragù stew/simmer over a low heat for about an hour.  I checked on it now and then and added a little bit more of the stock when necessary.

18I let the stew reduce to a very thick consistency, as you can see in this photo.  When the ragù reached room temperature, I added some minced parsely.  Just because.  Don’t ask me why.

It was now time to make the polenta.

19I followed the instructions on the packet. Basically, polenta requires five times the volume of water per polenta.  For instance: 100g polenta will require 500 ml of cooking water.  I added the truffle butter to the cooking polenta towards the very end.  Those specks you see are bits of truffle.

HELPFUL TIP WITH POLENTA:  Bring the water to the boil and then add the salt (10 g per liter of water).  When the salt has dissolved, take the pan away from the heat.  Use a wooden spoon or spatula to creat whirls in the water, i.e. go round and round with the spoon, quite fast so that a kind of ‘well’ is created in the middle.  Pour the polenta into this ‘well’, all at once, and get mixing as fast as you can.  Get rid of lumps if they should form. And then place the pot back on the heat again to finish cooking it.   I chose the quick-cooking polenta that requires less than 10 minutes.  Also, I added a teensy bit more water than technically required to make a more looser, ‘runnier’ texture.  And that was because I knew we would be reheating the polenta later on, just before serving, and I didn’t want to create a monster thickness.

20I used a ladle to put the ragù over the polenta at the beginning and then poured the last amount straight from the pot, scraping every little bit out with a rubber spatula.

21When everything had cooled down enough, I enveloped the pyrex dish with loads of clingfilm and placed it on a tray to help  me carry it to the car and up the steep flight of steps to Leanne’s house.  You need strong thighs to get to her home !

We placed it in a hot oven for a few minutes before serving it.  Freshly grated pecorino was served as a topping for those who wanted it.

I was having such a good time I didn’t take any photos, which is quite rare for me.  What a shame.   We started off with Alison’s delicious bresaola.  I had also made an emmer wheat/spelt salad seasoned with olive oil and lemonjuice and studded with cherry tomatoes and rocket/arugula.  Leanne made a delicious Indonesian soup, called Laksa. Liz and Simona brought a fab beef slow-cooked curry served with steamed rice.  We did not go hungry that’s for sure !

I asked Alison to kindly forward me a photo of some leftovers she took home.

KNRX9733I know it sounds as if I spent a lot of time cooking this polenta concoction but in reality it was a lot less.  Let me break it down for you.  It took me less than 5 minutes to get the vegetable stock going.  While that was simmering, I had to peel the onion and mince it (I used an electric blender for that).  Ditto for the tomatoes.  I had to gather the rest of the ingredients.  Pour the oil into the saucepan.  Skin the sausages.  By the time I actually got to cook the sausage meat, less than 15 minutes had gone by.  The initial cooking that required stirring and supervision did take about another 15 minutes.  So, in terms of ‘real’ time, it took me only half an hour to get the ragù going.  For the rest of its cooking time, about one hour, I was able to get on with other activities.  I checked on it about three times in all.

The polenta took me a total of about 20 minutes from start to finish.  I could have speeded things up by using an electric kettle I suppose.

The great thing about this polenta recipe is that you could freeze it in advance?

Mutton Stew and Frascati Wine

I think I might make this over the weekend, a mutton stew with white wine from Frascati and fresh peas.  Might skip the mashed potatoes.  We’ll see.

It’s from a post I wrote on my previous blog “My Home Food That’s Amore”, and goodness me!!!, dating back to four years ago now.

Frascati Mutton Stew – Spezzatino di Castrato e Piselli al Frascati DOCG

castrato del mercatoI bought some mutton at the Mercato Contadino of Ariccia some time ago on a Sunday morning.  The Azienda Agricola Fratelli Frasca farm is not far from Anzio and is called ‘Il Vecchio Ovile’, which translates as ‘The Old Sheep Farm’. Mr Frasca gave me ample instruction on how to make a great pasta sauce with the mutton and I will one day make one as per his instructions but I ended up making a stew instead.

You never know with mutton or ‘castrato’ as it is called in Italy … it can be a tough, chewy meat, however rich in flavour.  It is traditional in Italy to soak cuts of castrato in a marinade of wine or vinegar plus herbs, because it is supposed to be quite a ‘strong’ tasting meat and in need of taming. Mr Frasca assured me that his castrato needed no such tenderising and that its delicious taste was quite capable of speaking for itself.

As you might know, I live in the Frascati wine-growing hills called the ‘Castelli romani’ south-east of Rome, and it came to me that, just as a Piemontese will proudly strut over a ‘brasato al barolo’ (braised beef in Barolo wine), we Castellani should likewise put our wine where our mouth is.  And so I decided to enjoy creating a recipe where local ingredients would play the lead role and whose only ‘secret’ ingredient might be a playful element of Betty Hutton’s inimitable singing of ‘Anything you can do, I can do better’ in the 1946 musical ‘Annie, Get your Gun’

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WO23WBji_Z0?).  Not everyone might share my love of old musicals but this duet is guaranteed to bring a smile to anyone’s lips.

It is a Spring dish on account of the fresh peas.  For those who follow a Lenten non-meat diet, this will be a lip-smacking treat to look forward to on Easter and after Easter.  It is not a difficult recipe but does require good ingredients and, say I, Frascati white DOCG wine.

PART I

1Here are the castrato chunks …  I decided to trust Mr Frasca and eschewed the idea of a marinade.   I did, however, think it would be wise to briefly boil the meat in boiling water for a few minutes, as one does when making Blanquette de Veau, to remove any ‘scummy’ elements.   It is easily done …2Bring a pot of water to a strong boil …3Plunge the meat inside and very shortly … this is the ‘froth’ that will rise to the surface.  Remove the froth by and by, with a slotted spoon.4After about 4-5 minutes, drain the meat and place it in a good casserole … an earthenware one or a heavy bottomed pan, that comes with a lid.5Open a bottle of Frascati DOCG … I chose Fontana Candida’s Santa Teresa.6Pour the entire bottle into the pan.7Drizzle a little evoo … not too much, just a little to coat it.8Add 4 cloves of garlic, whole.9Cover with a lid and start simmering, over a low heat.

 

PART II – Adding Basic Vegetables for Taste

10Fennel seeds …11Cut up some celery, carrot and onion … the classic Italian soffritto vegetables … and gently stew them in some evoo with a teaspoon of fennel seeds and a few cloves of black pepper.12After about 12 to 15 minutes and after having sprinkled some salt over the soffritto …13Add it to the meat and cover again.  Carry on stewing.

 

PART III – Cooking the Peas14It was my saintly son who went to the trouble of shelling the peas.  It is something that can be done the day before, while watching something engrossing on television.15Roughly chop up one onion and cook it gently in some evoo with the addition of dry mint.

Repeat : dry mint.  This will add a depth to the stew that I can’t describe but one that works beautifully, trust me.  Granted the mint I obtained was the kind the Romans call ‘mentuccia’ (and a search on the internet identifies is botanically as Mentha pulegium), it’s the one that makes trippa alla romana or carciofi alla romana so delicious.  I got my dry mentuccia from Maria Regina Bortolato’s line of organically grown herbs ‘Erba Regina’ (I can’t wait for the inaguration of her Castelli farm hotel in early May — http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QcTTMf82zzY).  As you can see, I tried to make my ingredients as much Lazio and Castelli-sourced as possible.  And yes, the evoo too … it is Quattrociocchi’s and hails from the area near Alatri, in Lazio’s Ciociaria land.

Anyway, on with the recipe.16Add one teaspoon of sugar to the peas, as well as a good pinch of salt.17Then add a few strands of either guanciale or pancetta.  I prefer the guanciale, myself, but either will do.  Add two ladles of water and cover the peas and cook until they are tender (this took a lot longer than I thought, half an hour).  Set aside.

PART IV – Make Mash Potato Italian Style

18Mash potatoe Italian style includes a few spoons of freshly grated parmesan and a twist of nutmeg.  Set aside.

PART V – Combining the Foods

19When the stew is almost cooked (and this can take up to 1 and 1/2 hours, it will depend on the meat), add the peas, gently stir, taste and see whether the stew requires a little more salt, and cook for another 10 minutes over a very low heat, without the lid.  I say without the lid because you can keep an eye on what’s going on better this way … it would be a disaster if the meat got too dry at this stage, Saint Lawrence forbid ! (Saint Lawrence is the patron saint of cooks).

And now for a bit of ‘fiddly’.  The meat has cooked in white wine and the sauce that ensued could do with a little thickening.  So … Remove the stew to another pan for the moment …

20I transferred the stew to the pan where I had cooked the peas.21And this was the gravy and juices left behind in the casserole dish.22I used a sieve to add some flour … it looks like an awful lot in this photo, but I seem to remember using about 1 large serving-spoon’s worth of flour only.23Turn the heat on and use a wooden spoon to mix the flour in and make the gravy thicken smoothly.  Cook the flour for at least five minutes (otherwise the flour will ruin the taste).24This is an abominable photo … but it was a question of getting the dish right or the photo right, you do understand don’t you.  And it was at this point that I added a shot of Brandy, to impart another layer of taste to the stew.  The recipe I have for coq-au-vin adds Cognac towards the end, so I thought I would do something similar and added some Italian Brandy (Vecchia Romagna – Etichetta Nera).25And now the stew went back into the casserole dish and all the ingredients reunited at last.26Use a wooden spoon to gently jostle the ingredients into a harmonious whole.27A final taste … a twist of pepper, another pinch of salt maybe ?  Cover with the lid and get ready to plate.

PART VI – GRAND FINALE

I know it is trendy and aesthetically pleasing, not to mention gastronomically inviting, to plate individual dishes, and I would expect no less at any restaurant.  At home, however, nothing speaks more loudly of home cooking and love of friends and family as does a generous serving dish, however 1970s and ‘naff’ that might seem to people who scrutinise such practice disdainfully.  Home isn’t about being trendy, though home can indeed be elegant.

28So here is the beautiful serving dish, designed by artist Cassandra Wainhouse who has made Italy, and San Gimignano and Florence in particular, her home for decades now. Her serving platters are not just gorgeous to look at, their shape makes for versatility with a capital V.  Even a sad ol’ salad can look inviting on one of her platters … they glint with gold (literally … there is gold leaf on them).29I being no artist, on the other hand, was having a bit of a struggle trying to  make a ring mould with the mashed potatoes.  The mash was very hot otherwise I would have used by fingers … I had to make do with the wooden spoon instead.30I then spooned the mutton stew into the centre of the potato ‘ring’.31And did a bit of silly-billy strewing of fresh mint leaves on the potatoes.  32It may not look much …33

Stews aren’t famous for their looks.  How did it taste?  Well, with little care for modesty on this occasion, can I say? … it was bloody good.  Blushingly happy.  It was everything one would expect of a stew … the words ‘filling’ and ‘satisfying’ come to mind.  But it was also light and ‘playful’ on the palate, and the taste wanted to linger on.  Which was just as well because we polished the lot in record time …

 

Stuffed Courgettes/Zucchine Ripiene Baked in the Oven

“Zucchine ripiene”, Italian for “stuffed courgettes”, is such a commonplace Summery dish around these parts that butchers sell them already prepared for you – all you have to do is cook them.  I wrote a post about them a while ago (six years ago! – here’s the link: https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2012/09/07/stuffed-courgettes-zucchine-ripiene/ ).  In that post, I showed how I did the stuffing myself.  This time, I had bought the ready-to-go courgettes from the butcher’s.  That time, I cooked them in a saucepan … THIS time, I decided to bake them in the oven.

In my last post, I confessed to my not being the best of gardeners, not even when it comes to herbs and the balcony.  Except for basil and marjoram, and this year rosemary too thank Goodness, I find that some of the herbs can be a bit on the ‘precious’ side (not tarragon, bless it).  There is, however, ONE very Roman exception-herb that is wholeheartedly generous, so generous indeed that it just ‘sprouts’ and grows on its own, without the slightest bit of help from anyone: and that is the “mentuccia romana” or “pennyroyal” as it is called in English.  Hands up anyone who’s even heard of pennyroyal, let alone used it.  Right?  Right …

3

Here it is, playing peekaboo from the bottom of a flower pot.

11

And here is another one … just like Topsy, the character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, who claimed that she did not know where she came from, she “just grewed”.

Mentuccia is very often the preferred herb in Rome for stuffing artichokes.  Some prefer parsely – some a mix of the two.  I have added a bit of mentuccia to a tomato sauce for a pasta dish.  A little goes a long way, it is quite potent.  That day, I was feeling very daring, and decided to depart on two accounts from the traditional way of cooking stuffed courgettes.  A) I would add mentuccia and B) I would bake them in the oven, instead of braising them on the cooker/stove top.  I am such a rebel … a pennyroyal iconoclast.

4

Just a splash of olive oil and then a few sprigs of mentuccia.

5

In go the stuffed courgettes and a layer of cut up tomatoes. Salt too.

61.jpgAnd now … bake in a preheated oven at around 200°C for 50 minutes or until done.

8Forgot to mention that I baked them with the lid ‘on’.  If you haven’t got a lid you could always use aluminium foil.

10Very easy to make.  And the mentuccia did indeed add a little bit of ooomph.

Warning: this dish needs to be served with plenty of  bread to soak up all the lovely sauce.  A glass of wine … or two … to keep the conviviality going.

An Apple a Day Makes Our Straccetti very Okay

Straccetti are basically slices of beef cut very very thinly, that take no time to cook and are thus a favourite go-to dinner option when it’s hot and one doesn’t want to be perspiring more than necessary, and certainly not over a cooker/stove top.  The butcher sell these already cut for the customer.

A “straccio” is a rag or tea towel of sorts and the diminutive “straccetti” (pronounced stratch-ett-ee) do indeed resemble little rags I suppose?  They are normally served with fresh rocket/arugula, sliced tomatoes and slithers of parmesan.  Some like to dribble a little balsamic vinegar (I don’t).  They can be served with fresh porcini mushrooms/ceps too, why not?

This time I decided to add an apple to the mix: aha! How very daring of me, hey!

But let’s begin at the beginning.

img_8555.jpg

Pour some olive oil into a frying pan and add some garlic (if you like, and I do like, as well as some chilli).

IMG_8560

Lay the streccetti flat in the saucepan, preferably in one layer.  Spinkle with salt.  Slice an apple and place that on top.

IMG_8561

Arrange a wreath of rocket/arugula and tomatoes cut in half inside a nice big serving dish or bowl.

IMG_8562

Now turn on the heat.

IMG_8563

The straccetti take no time to cook over a strong flame (3-4 minutes).  Use a wooden spoon or fork towards the end of the cooking time to make sure all the meat is cooked.

IMG_8564

Transfer the straccetti to the beautiful bowl.

IMG_8567

Don’t let the ‘greyish’ hue of the meat put you off.  Straccetti taste delicious !

IMG_8565

And I must say that the inclusion of the apple, although not traditional, did add a je ne sais quoi to it all.  Feel free to slather more olive oil on everyone’s plate.

IMG_8566

I wrote this post about how to make straccetti with artichokes seven years ago … the recipe still holds good, here is the link if you’d like to take a look:

https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2011/04/06/rags-to-riches/

Bugs Bunny Braised Carrots

Bugs Bunny comes to mind because this naughty little cartoon film protagonist loves his carrots, only he eats his raw and mine were braised.  I like carrots both raw and cooked – so old school, so old fashioned, so ‘ordinaire’, what’s to gush about – and yet we still eat carrots with gusto, even though we may not rave about them.

When we lived in Lebanon many decades ago now, we would often be served carrots sliced lengthwise, seasoned with lemon juice and salt.  My grandmother’s comment was that she had noticed how very few  Lebanse wore spectacles and she was sure that was due to all the carrots they ate.  The arbitrariness of her conclusion continues to made smile within every time I serve carrots as a ‘proper’ vegetable side dish at the table, as opposed to a mere component in a salad.  Have you ever tried cooking carrots with a little bit of butter and a hint of grated fresh ginger? Or, the French way, with plenty of butter and maybe some garlic and definitely plenty of finely chopped parsely?  Carrots and oranges (my invention) ?

Whatever.  The other evening, as mentioned in my last post, I had a big bunch of carrots in the fridge and decided to make them the star attraction of the evening.  Basically what I did was braise them.  Carrots take longer to cook than one would think, in order to extract the right amount of sweetness from them.  So this does not constitute a last-minute preparation.  That said, there is definitely nothing difficult about the recipe.

INGREDIENTS: Olive oil, butter, pepper corns, garlic, a sprig of rosemary, half a glass of fortified wine (port or sherry, I used marsala ), carrots, water, salt

1

2I don’t know about you but I like my carrots peeled.

Start by cooking the garlic in some butter and olive oil, including the sprig of rosemary and some pepper corns.

5Then add the carrits, whole, and sprinkle plenty of salt.  (I had to cut one carrot in half because it wouldn’t fit in the pan).

6Toss or shove the pan around vigorously so that the carrots get coated all over in the melted butter and olive oil.

7Add half a glass of Marsala (or other sweet or fortified wine of your choice).

8Raise the heat and allow the alcohol to evaporate.

9Remove the sprig of rosemary.  Now add about half a glass of plain water.

10Cover with a lid and cook over a low heat for about 15 minutes.

11When I removed the lid, I pierced one carrot with a sharp knife to check on how ‘done’ it was.  I was surprised to find it still too ‘hard’.  So I plopped the lid back on and cooked the carrots for another 15 minutes.

12Or so I seem to remember.  Maybe a little longer?  In the event, do keep an eye on the carrots because, although we do want them to sort of caramelise, we don’t want them to burn.  I caught mine in the nick of time.

1314Mini hamburgers/meatballs, a hipster salad, and an old-fashioned bunch of carrots.  Crazy dinner.  But yes, the carrots were very nice.  I’ll be making these again.

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

1

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.

11

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.

24

What is the point of (the) brisket?

Times may change but the restaurant business has always been given to elements that are fickle and finnicky.  Our brother-in-law Enrico had to give up running a restaurant in Rome in November of a year ago and took over one in Marino called “Cantina Colonna” which had been very popular towards the end of the 1990s and early 2000s.  One year later and the efforts he has put into the place, together with partner and artist Alberto, are beginning to bear fruit.  The menu is Roman, down-to-earth, tasty and seasonal and if excitement is not on the menu, honesty is.  I had dinner there my niece and her partner visiting from Sweden just last week; I picked them up on a cold, wet and shivery evening at Fiumicino airport.  We didn’t get to the restaurant until 10 o’clock and weren’t too surprised to be the only customers that evening (mid week can be very slow).  They were  both pooped, coming as they did from long back-to-back meetings for work and the trip itself and I encouraged them to eat.  Which they did, and with great relish.  The next morning, Ulrika remarked on how surprising it was that she had slept so well given how much she had eaten and at such a late hour.  “It must mean that the food is good.”  Exactly.

When my husband and I had dinner at Enrico’s a few weeks ago, he suggested we try his veal brisket.  Please take a look at the following two photos.  They may not be great shots but do admit: doesn’t that look like a fab joint of roast?

0

00

Look at the serving plate awash with delicious “sughetto”, gravy.

So of course I had to have the recipe, and here is my attempt.

The recipe is called “punta di petto di vitella alla fornara”, which translates something like this: the point of the brisket cooked the baker’s way.  The ‘point’ refers to a part of this cut of meat … and that’s the whole ‘point’ of this blog post, haha.  This cut of meat is relatively inexpensive (Eu 12.90/kg) because it contains quite a bit of cartilage.  Enrico said that all he did was slather it with olive oil, rosemary and sage, seasalt and use some white wine to help cook it and produce the gravy.

You will need fresh rosemary and sage leaves.  Chop them up together. Transfer to a glass bowl and drown the herbs with oodles of olive oil.  Have some coarse seasalt at the ready.

1

Here is the veal  brisket.  Pat it dry.

6.jpg

Here it is rolled out.  I took one clove of garlic (only one!) and sliced it into three pieces.  I inserted the pieces inside the meat.

I proceeded to anoint the meat on this side first, adding the salt crystals last.

9

I then turned the ‘anointed’ part of the meat over and tucked in both ends of the meat, so that it is now shaped almost like a scroll.  More slathering of herb infused olive oil, more sprinkling of beautiful salt.

10

Enrico said to roast the meat for about 40 minutes at 180°C.

11

While it was roasting, I poured out about 250ml of Frascati wine into the wine caraffe that is typical of around here and Rome.  The one litre is called “tubbo”, the half litre size is called “fojetta”, the 250ml size is called “un quartino” , 1/5th of a litre is called “chierichetto” and the smallest size, 1/10th of a litre, is called “sospiro”. I’ll write another blog about the story behind these caraffes another time, it’s quite droll really and has to do with popes and levying taxes.

12

Forty minutes later and I removed the roast from the oven and poured all the  wine into the roasting pan (not over the meat).  Back it went for another 20 minutes, as per Enrico’s instructions.

13

 

16

And that is what came out of the oven.  The scent, by the way, was nostril-twitching stuff.

However … when I sliced the meat to take a peek … I saw that it was still a little undercooked.  And by undercooked, I don’t mean ‘pink’, I mean undercooked.

17

So I added more Frascati wine and popped it back into the oven for another 15-20 minutes.  This is the thing about ovens, they are all different and they are all very unreliable.  Everyone has to know their own oven.

18

I let the meat rest for the briefest of minutes because we had guests for dinner and it was just the right time now for our ‘secondo’, our main course.  I was too lazy to remove the cartilage.

19

So much lovely gravy!

20

Surrounded by friendly roast potatoes.

21Tender as can be and sitting over a puddle of gravy.

22

And much appreciated by our neighbours that evening.  It was a potluck affair, which I love, and what you see on my plate here is an Insalata Russa with beetroot in it, yum.

The next day.  Leftovers, yay!

24

I heated the gravy.

The meat had spent something like 15 minutes in a warm oven that I turned off as soon as I put the meat in.   I didn’t want the meat to cook further, I just wanted it to be warm.23

25Yes, the plate needs a swipe.  But I was concentrating on the meat, not the plate.

26See how it glistened?

My husband said it tasted even better the next day.

I can’t sing its praises highly enough.  Thank you Enrico!

 

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.

1

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.

2

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.

37.jpg

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.

13

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

3a

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.

8

I then placed the mixture on some parchment paper.

10

I added the parmesan and combined all the ingredients.

11

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

12

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.

16

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.

173.jpg

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.

25

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.

29

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?

31

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.

32

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.

33

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

34

35

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

36

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.