Polpette di Tonno – Tuna Fish-balls

I wrote this post on 18 September 2011 – Golly ! that is eight years ago.  And my feelings for September continue to be roughly the same.  Not my favourite month.  End of Summer.  Sigh.  The recipe, too, continues to be the same.  Reassuring.  Easy to make, and that’s a good thing.  And good for parties.

Sabaudia

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An Indian summer … although we’re half way through September … it’s so easy to enjoy the heat but too late to pretend not to notice that the days are getting shorter … and busier … and that any day now it will get brrrr-cross-your-arms-and-slap-your-shoulders-nippy and we’ll start having to wear sweaters and what have you and don slippers indoors instead of traipsing about bare foot.  It is as if a whisper of seasonal melancholy were subtly knocking at my front door. For someone who loves summer as much as I do, September is a very challenging month and can see me veering towards a moany-groany, want-to-run-away frame of mind.

This year I decided I would be grown up about it and do my best to stretch the summer’s feel of freedom as much as I could.  I tried to organise myself so that I could work in ‘chunks’ … and thus it was that a few days ago, I was able to scamper off to the beach at Sabaudia for most of the day.  It took us one and a half hours to get there but, as always, it was worth it. There were very few people about, now that people are back at work and children back at school.  The breeze was caressing as only a zephyr can be, the sea was still warm enough for me to swim in (I am such a wimp about cold water!) and it was all I could do to tear myself away and head for home as the sun began to set.  Aaaah.  Sigh …. isn’t the sun setting over the sea one of the most compelling sights to behold?

Ultra-organised, smug lady had prepared some vegetables the day before (a potato and celery purée and roasted bell peppers), had bought gorgeous fruit on the way to the beach, knew that wine was cooling in the fridge, so it was only a question of buying some chicken or meat on the way home and dinner was going to be a snap.  But, repeat, I had a very hard time of wrenching my body and soul from the siren call of the sea with the result that all the shops were naturally closed by the time we finally did drive past them.

I didn’t feel quite so smug then, as I took on the slim prospect for our main course that evening, knowing that just like Mother Hubbard, I was going to find the cupboard woefully ‘bare’ when I got there —  the ‘cupboard’, these days, naturally being the fridge and the freezer.  But thank goodness for Nursery Rhymes because I realised that there was indeed one food in my cubbyhole cupboard that was going to save the day: tuna fish packed in oil! Polpette di tonno … i.e. meatballs made out of tuna fish (technically the tuna doesn’t qualify them as ‘meat’-balls … but what else can one call them in English? croquettes? ugh).  How about … fish-balls?

The ingrdients: salted capers (which need to be rinsed and drained a few times to be rid of the excess saltiness), lemon zest (the zest you see came out of the freezer), parsley, two tins of tunny fish packed in oil (and please note that it wasn’t the top quality kind but still, a good kind), and last, and in the case of any kind of polpette, never least … the moistened bread (again, as I wrote in the other post on meatballs, ‘plastic’ white bread serves very well). You will also need an egg to bind the polpette mixture, bread crumbs to coat them and, optional, some grated parmesan cheese.

The tuna is drained of its oil and gets plopped into the blender …

Add the other ingredients.  Ordinarily, I would have chopped up the lemon zest before adding it for a ‘finer’ and more understated taste.  But that evening I was in too much of a hurry … and too hungry!

Freshly milled white pepper …  (Don’t ask what the coffee is doing in the photo … I expect it was lurking about near the stove when we got home and nobody bothered to put it back where it belongs).

Process the mix being careful not to ‘overwork’ it … it must not go all liquid-y.   Transfer the mixture to a large bowl and …

Add the grated parmesan cheese if you think you are going to like it.  We do and we did.

I put in about 4 heaped soup spoons.

One egg.  Mix everything up very well and if the consistency is not thick enough, add some bread crumbs to ‘toughen’ it up.

Shaping the polpette di tonno …

Coating them in bread crumbs …

All those polpette from just two tins of tunny fish!

Fry the polpette in plenty of oil and in small batches.  Remove with a slotted spoon and let them rest on some kitchen paper before serving.

I served the polpette over a purée of celery and potatoes (which I had made the day before), together with the peperoni al forno (which I had also made the day before):

Please note the size of the garlic … it is cut very ‘big’.  The garlic imparts an inimitably pleasing flavour to the overall taste of the dish and is thus very necessary.  However, not everyone, including myself, actually likes to eat the raw garlic itself.  The bits of garlic are large enough to be espied by even the most near-sighted diner and hence he or she can safely shove it out of danger’s way, to the far end of the plate.

The impromptu meal brought on by my stubborn desire to tarry a while by the sea reserved another surprise.  I remembered that we had some Canadian wild salmon in the fridge, which we ate accompanied by toasted bread and butter.  So … what was going to be a very ordinary though perfectly good supper turned out to be a bit of a feast.

It was half past nine by the time we sat down to eat.  Very late.  Very very late. The sort of naughty ‘late’ that seems fitting only during Summer, when time flows more slowly, ‘a misura d’uomo’, as they say in Italian, meaning ‘suitable or appropriate for man’.  And for yet another evening, I was able to ignore the whisper of seasonal melancholy subtly knocking at my front door.  It will bang loudly soon enough …

Pasta Ncasciata: A Sicilian Medley of Marvellous Mixture

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

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

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

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Everybody loved it, is all I can say.

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

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

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

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

1 kg pasta

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

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

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

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

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

MAKING THE MEATBALLS

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

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

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

MAKING THE TOMATO SAUCE

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

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

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

Then (2) :

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

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

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

FRYING THE AUBERGINES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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TIME TO CONCENTRATE AND COOK THE PASTA

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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THE OVEN SHOULD BE TURNED ON AT 200°C.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OUT OF THE OVEN

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IMG_8983And then we have leftovers the next day !

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What can I say? Marvellous!

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

Thank you Diane Darrow for inspiring me!

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

 

Carrot Sunshine and Meatballs (polpette) with a Georgian Sauce

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Veal and Pea Patties (Polpette di Vitella e Piselli)

This is a “loving the leftovers” recipe.  I had a couple of slices of veal that I hadn’t cooked when preparing saltimbocca alla romana the day before.  I didn’t want to freeze them but they were not enough veal to satisfy our dinner requirements that evening.  So … Patties – “polpette” – to the rescue.  Why not?

The freezer dredged up some peas; the fridge some grated parmesan and good butter.  Plenty of breadcrumbs in the store cupboard. Garlic and olive oil never missing in my kitchen.  A solitary egg.  A glass of white wine.  Some tomato sauce et voilà! Bob’s your uncle.  Take a look.

IMG_0050Place the veal, parmesan, peas and breadcrumbs in the processor.

Add one egg, salt and pepper and blend.  Add more breadcrumbs if necessary.  Shape the  mixture into polpette, little balls.

Pour a puddle of olive oil into a saucepan.  Add a peppercorn (two if you prefer) and a couple of cloves of garlic.  Remove from the pan when browned, but keep side for now together with some parsely, and start cooking the polpette.

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Add the parsley after a while.

10Put garlic back in (don’t if you don’t want to – some people like their garlic ‘light’, others more pronounced.  I am mid-way and this way is mid-way).

11White wine comes next: pour some in and turn the heat up for a bit to make the alcohol evaporate.

12And now butter and tomato sauce.  Salt too.  Maybe a hint of sugar if the tomato is too tart.  Cook for only a few minutes, over a fairly low heat.

13While the tomato sauce is simmering away, cook some more peas with a little butter. Then put everything on a serving plate and bring to the table.

14I suppose some fresh mint would have gone very well this this.

Easy peasy no pun intended ha ha!

Flowery Meatballs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Shape them into meatballs.  Et voilà there they are!

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Fry them in olive oil or groundnut/peanut oil.

 

Turn them over only once.

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

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12So pretty, do admit!

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

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

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

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

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

Only to find it closed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Braised fennel … béchamel sauce.

8Finished off with plenty of freshly grated parmigiano.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

19Buffalo mozzarella alongside some unseasonal cherry tomatoes ….

18Chicken and veal meatballs. Gozzaroddi.

19aWild salad leaf insalata.  Notice the yellow flowers.

And last, making no sense whatsoever geographically …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Popeye’s Spinach Patties – Spinacine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have a go!

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

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

1

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

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

6Then add one egg and the parmesan.

7And finally the breadcrumbs and the chicken.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time to bread the spinacine.

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

15Dip the spinacina into the eggwash first …

16And then bread it.  Press firmly.

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

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

Time to fry the spinacine.

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

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

22Use a slotted spoon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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