Pasta on the Beach: Courgette Concert

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My husband and I decided to spend a day on the beach at Porto Ercole. It’s on Tuscany’s Monte Argentario coast.  That’s what I like about living near Rome, we’re never too far away from a really nice beach.

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Lovely clear, clean water and – for a wimpy wuss like me who can’t bathe in normal ‘cool’ water – there was the added advantage of the temperature being warm enough for me.

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This was late August, and the beach still quite busy.  But not overcrowded as beaches tend to be in many parts of Italy during the June-September holiday season.

A few days before, at work in the kitchen at the Casale Minardi wine estate, I watched as chef Luigi went about making a very simple pasta dish.  Hmmm.  Simple but delicious, so I just had to try it out for myself.

INGREDIENTS: courgettes/zucchine, olive oil, an onion, some pork jowl (guanciale) – I suppose pancetta or bacon would do, lemon zest, grated parmesan or pecorino cheese, almonds.  P.S.  Remove the guanciale and this is easily a vegetarian recipe.

 

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I snapped the courgette blossoms off and placed them in a bowl of fairly warm but not hot water.  By the way, if you can’t find courgette blossoms, this pasta will still taste good.  And, as a piece of perhaps not very vital information, I can also tell you that these were female flowers.  The male flowers have a little stem to them.

4I removed the flowers after about 15 minutes and left them to dry out for a bit.  Notice how they have plumped out by a good soak in the water. Set aside.

Chop up some almonds.  You could toast them first if you liked.  I couldn’t be bothered. Set aside.

7Grate some pecorino cheese.  If you can’t find pecorino, parmesan will do very nicely.  Set aside.

Get a packet of pasta ready.  Set aside.

Slice some guanciale very thinly, set aside.

Enough with all this setting aside!  Time to get cooking.

Put the water onto boil.

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Roughly chop an onion and cook it with some olive oil.  It must not brown, okay?  Low and steady heat.  Go for a blond colour.

9Now add the slices of guanciale.

10Give the guanciale enough time to render its fat and then add the courgettes.

11Cook the courgettes until you are happy with their texture and now add some lemon zest – in slices, not cut up finely.  Because you will remove the lemon zest before serving the pasta.  If you are a lemon zest fiend, as Luigi the chef most definitely is, you could chop it very very finely and leave it in.

12Time to add the almonds.  Combine the ingredients.

13Tear the courgette blossoms and add them too.

14Mix them in and turn the heat off until you are ready to drain the pasta directly into the saucepan.  Next time, I would add the blossoms last.

15Here we go.

Turn the heat on and add some of the cooking water.  Finish cooking the pasta. Then take the saucepan away from the source of heat.

16Add some of the pecorino and mix it in.

17Taste.

18Add some more.  Taste.

19Add a little bit more cooking water if necessary.  And yes, it was necessary.  It helped to make everything come together.

Remove the lemon zest and serve.  Keep some for leftovers.

20Enjoy some the next day on the beach – an essential secret ingredient for this recipe.

 

FREEZER CLEAN-OUT DELICIOUS PASTA RECIPE

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade they say.  What would be a good proverb for when one has to clear out a freezer?

This was the ‘picture’ of my freezer on Saturday afternoon, November 11th 2017.  The invasion of ice.  Too much scruffy looking plastic.  Stuffed to the icy gills.

 

IMG_1764Time to give in to the urge and get on with the purge.

IMG_1767It was then that I decided that our dinner that evening would be scraps of the freezer clean-out.  I won’t bore you with the entire menu but there is one recipe that I would love to share with you and is the reason for this blog post.

Visiting Canadian friends invited us to spend a weekend with them in Tuscany at the end of September.  The house they had rented was near Castello di Ama and within easy driving distance of Greve, where we went to have lunch the day after we arrived. On the Sunday, our last day, the charming owners of the house put on a cooking class for us.  The lesson began with the dessert, a tiramisu.

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This was followed  by grilled vegetables and tomatoes seasoned with herbs growing in their gorgeous garden.  And then the very Tuscan “pappa al pomodoro” (best pappa al pomodoro of my life!).  On the grill the equally Tuscanissimo Fiorentina steak, together with sausages and fresh bacon strips.  And not last, because it figured just after the pappa al pomodoro,  and most definitely not least, was an un-Tuscan pasta dish consisting of … wait for it … sausages and mascarpone.  Served with plenty of grated parmesan.  Three ingredients only, full of meat fat and dairy fat, and incredibly delicious!  Being dealt a double whammy of mascarpone in the course of one meal had us almost in hysterics … it was just so good and, amazingly, we managed to digest it all!

The photos speak for themselves.

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IMG_0819It was a wee bit cold but there was no way we were going to forgo eating al fresco. What a great lunch!

11And this is what I rustled up after purging my freezer last Saturday … only as it happened, I didn’t have enough marscarpone and so had to add some defrosted gorgonzola to the mix to make do.  Call this the gorgonzola version.

Well worth making, I promise you. Give it a try!

 

Glossy Baked-Tomato Sauce for a Summer Pasta

When Winter is finally over, and Spring is being enjoyed, all of a sudden I get a craving for Summer.  Weird, isn’t it? My musings based on nostalgia (looking back) somehow have the power to stimulate future-oriented cravings in me.  In this case, the yearning is for a pasta recipe that is eaten at room temperature during the season when tomatoes taste the best: i.e. Summer.  I wrote a post about it I for the “Giardini di Sole” blog but unfortunately it got ‘lost’ in a technical mishap.   All of us at “Giardini di Sole” (Sandy, Libby, Liz and I) love to cook , and we are not beyond the commission of excess in the kitchen department.  Husbands, family and friends don’t seem to mind so I can’t see us reining in any time soon.  This is Liz Macrì’s recipe.

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It was one of the dishes we prepared for our Open House day in the Showroom (SOWA) in Boston in May 2013.

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So, let’s take a look at the ingredients:

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Fresh basil, garlic, Italian or panko type breadcrumbs, olive oil, salt, black olives (pitted), capers and anchovies packed in oil.  Oh! and tomatoes, of course, the little cherry kind, cut in half, the cut half facing the ceiling.  You will also need parchment paper to line the baking trays.  A tip: it is not always that one has access to fabulous tasting tomatoes, so it’s not a bad idea to sprinkle a little sugar over them.

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So … after liberally strewing capers, sliced garlic, sliced olives and ribbons of basil over the tomatoes, douse the tomatoes with olive oil and, finally, sprinkle a dusting of breadcrumbs.

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Don’t forget to sprinkle salt.  I would do this first, actually, now that I come to think about it.  It’s probably best to sprinkle some salt over the tomatoes before you begin doing anything else.

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Pop the trays into a preheated oven, on a fairly low heat, 120°C, and cook until they are ready.  This can take any time between 40 minutes and 1 hour.  It all depends on the oven and the amount of tomatoes being cooked.

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And here they are, looking gorgeous, just out of the oven.  Allow to cool.

Meanwhile, you will have cooked some pasta and drained it when it was very much al dente.  Check the packet for suggested cooking time and drain the pasta 1 minute before. Choose any kind of pasta shape so long as it is short.

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After draining the pasta, spread it out evenly over a clean towel, so that it will cool down quicklier.  Once cooled, drizzle some olive oil (not too much) and mix well. This is to prevent the pasta from sticking together.

If you want to eat the pasta straight away, you can do without the above step.  If, however, you want to eat the pasta later in the day, or even the next day, you can store the pasta in the fridge, sealed with clingfilm.  It’s best not to eat the pasta cold, so remove from the fridge at least one hour before eating.

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This is the dish we brought to our Open House Day.  Good food tastes even better served in beautiful plates!

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IMG_8205And here we were, just minutes before people started coming in to our Open House, May  2013.  From the left: Liz, myself, Sandy and Libby.  Alanna, a close friend and staunch supporter, took this photo.

Paschal Lamb Ragù (that’s good any time of year really)

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I dedicate this post to Kathy Ayer because it was with her that I bought some fresh pasta from the town of Artena.  Artena is famous for its bread, as is Lariano, but I reckon its flour makes some of the best fresh pasta I’ve ever tasted, with a delicious bite to it.  We are very lucky to find it at the farmers’ markets in the Castelli Romani.  In Ariccia on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, and near Frascati on Fridays.  She and I were in Ariccia on the Wednesday and I asked the vendor whether the pasta would last until the following (Easter) Sunday.  The answer was yes.  I was to leave the pasta in its plastic container, but the lid was to be kept open.  Hmmm.

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Having always challenged the mantra my mother chanted throughout my childhood, and that is “to trust is very good, to not trust is even better”, I found myself annoyingly assailed by doubts that this pasta would indeed be good enough to eat five days after it had been prepared.  On the other hand, I knew I had plenty of other dry pasta at home so it wasn’t going to be the end of the world if I would have to do without it after all, on the appointed day.

The day was Easter Sunday, and in Italy, despite Berlusconi’s protestations as he had himself photographed hugging a baby lamb, Easter usually does mean lamb.  So I thought I would make a Paschal ragù using lamb and a few asparagus.  I asked the butcher to mince the meat for me (leg of lamb) and kept the bone too, to help with both the sauce AND the water with which to cook the pasta.

Are you ready?  This is not at all a difficult recipe but it does call for a little attention.  It tasted really good, so I shall make it again.  Try it some time.

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The above is about 350g of minced lamb, taken from the leg.  Of course, we are talking about Italian lamb here, agnello or abbacchio, and this is really baby  baby lamb.

INGREDIENTS

Leg of lamb, with the meat minced and the bone chopped into smaller pieces, asparagus stems (use the tips for something else), onion, garlic, olive oil, peppercorns, red wine (white if you prefer), rosemary, sage, mint, butter, parmesan or a mixture of parmesan and pecorino cheese, fresh pasta (dry if you haven’t any), salt and pepper. Two saucepans. One to start the sauce with, and a much larger one for the end results.

The first thing I did was soak the bones in plenty of water:

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The water goes red, so change it once or twice.

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And that’s what the leg of lamb pieces looked like after their bath.  Please note that there is still some meat attached to the bone (not a lot).

6I filled a large pasta pot with water and added bits of the bone that were meat free.

8I added some rosemary and sage to the water, and turned the heat on, with the lid on.

9Chop an onion, and place it in a nice saucepan together with some peppercorns, olive oil and the bits of bone with meat on ’em.  Start cooking, over a low-medium heat.

10Keep an eye on the onions – we don’t want them to go brown.

11When they are golden, remove them and transfer to another saucepan, in anticipation of the grand finale.  A BIG saucepan that will be able to accommodate all the pasta at the end.

12Back to our smaller saucepan.  Carry on cooking the bones, instead, on a lively heat … they will roast to a burnished colour.

1314When the bones have roasted enough, remove them, and deglaze the pan with some nice red wine.  When finished, transfer the juices too to the other, big saucepan.

15Remove as much of the meat from the bones as you can – and this is mighty tricky, let me tell you.  Not at all easy.  I might get the butcher to do it for me next time.

17And add those bones too, now, to the pasta water.

16Chop the meat you managed to remove from the bones.  Pur this chopped meat into the larger saucepan.

18Back to our initial saucepan which is looking rather the worse for wear – but that’s okay, no cause for concern.  Dribble more olive oil and put a couple of roughly squashed cloves of garlic in the pan. Turn the heat on and wait for the garlic to go golden.

19Now add the minced meat.  Sprinkle some salt.  Carry on cooking the meat until it turns a nice brown but not burnt colour.

20And now, this is what the bigger saucepan is up to at this stage: it contains the (1) previously cooked onions, (2) chopped meat I managed to extract from the bones, (3) deglazed juices, and (4) some rosemary needles.  Salt. Sprinkle salt.21

Now add the cooked minced meat to the bigger pan.  I apologise for the angle of this photo but I don’t know why wordpress uploaded it this way.  You’ll have to crick your neck to see it ‘properly’.  No  matter, you get idea, don’t you?

22I added a nice lump of butter.  I do love butter and a little bit of butter works wonders when there is a pasta sauce that does not have a lot of ‘liquid’ (such as tomato sauce) to it. Remove the pan from the heat for now.

24I removed all the bones and herbs from the pasta water.  All these ingredients had been useful as a kind of broth, and had imparted whatever flavour they could. Time to say bye bye.

2325I put the chopped asparagus and the pasta into the boiling cauldron of flavoured pasta water and waited for them to cook.  About 5-6 minutes.  Notice who ‘oily’ the pasta water is!

26Turn the heat back on …

27Drain the pasta and asparagus and put them into the saucepan.  Add some of the cooking water.

28Combine all the ingredients, adding more cooking water if necessary, and then season the pasta with some grated parmesan.  Use a wooden spoon to help you.  Or two large forks.

2930Taste. Taste, taste and taste.  A twist of pepper.  Maybe a little bit more salt? A few mint leaves?

31Serve and enjoy.

There was more grated parmesan on the table for people to add if they wished.

I normally rabbit on about loving the leftovers.  Well, there were no leftovers that Easter Sunday.  We polished off the lot.

 

Basic Cooking Class Italian Style – A Bit of Boot Camp Never Hurt

Kindness is timeless.

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You know the cooking experience is going to go well when you are offered a beautiful orchid plant even before starting the lesson!  The story may be apocryphal but I had read that in China it was customary for an audience to clap before the show took place, maybe to clear the air of any unwanted negative energy or, on the contrary, to imbue the air with positive vibrations emanating from the clapping itself.  I was just so touched by the attitude of gratitude that my two fellow kitchen ‘combatants’ showed me with their floral offering and their smiles.

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The venue was the home of Victoria Bonadonna and her very generous and thoroughly organized kitchen space.

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I don’t like the kitchen spaces used for formal cookery lessons; highly technical, ergonomic and hygienic in the extreme, and thus practical for understandably obvious reasons, they lack any ‘real home’ element to them – it’s like being in a gymn as opposed to walking in a park or swimming in the sea. Victoria’s is no huge kitchen and is proof that size does not matter immeasurably when it comes to putting good food on the table.  Victoria does, however, boast many and necessary accoutrements for making the cooking process a smooth one, the helpful kitchen gadgets or ‘toys’ as I call them:  precision electronic scales, knives, immersion blender, electric whisk/beater and plenty of pots and pans of all sizes.  Victoria has plenty more kitchen trinkets but these are the ones that really matter. Oh, and scissors ! Scissors can save the day.

And Victoria is, and very much so, organised.  I think that that is one of the ‘ingredients’ that doesn’t get enuogh mention when it comes to realistic, do-able, enjoyable cooking. Mental clarity and organization are everything.  So it is better to start learning a few simple techniques and tips first and play around with those until they are under your belt, and then brave recipes that require a lot more skill.  And this is precisely why I love Italian cookery: the techniques are so easy, anyone can learn them.  Good meals can be prepared in very little time.  Since time management, as we know, is something of a challenge for so many of us, this is an immense boon.

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Victoria is the mother of two and an accomplished home cook.  Moreover, she can bake whereas I do so with hesitant trepidation.  And she can barbecue too – which I cannot because we live in an apartment and don’t have a garden.  Victoria is privy to an award-winning barbecue recipe that her cousin in Missouri shared with her; she gave me some tips for spare ribs that I then made for my nephew who loves them and, though roasted in an oven as opposed to a proper barbecue, boy!  Boy were they good!.

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Victoria’s lifestyle is typical of many women raising kids: an early wake-up, breakfast for the kids, drive them to two different schools, pick them up at lunch time (in Italy school kids finish their day at around 1 o’clock after a certain age), make them lunch, make sure they get started on their homework, take them to various sports or activities in the afternoon, and then – of course- make them dinner.  In other words, she is busy.  Busy all day.  In and out of the car at regular daily intervals.  Oh and did I mention that she runs the Culture Club of the Castelli as well as the Castelli Welcome Neighbour Association?

Christine (below) is a mother to be and about to return to her native Napa after spending nearly two years in Italy on account of her husband’s work.  She likes to cook too and was keen to learn more about a few simple, easy to make Italian recipes, for weekday meals.  So Victoria and I conspired to organize an Italian Bootcamp Cooking Basics for her day before yesterday.  The appointed time was 10 a.m. and it had to be over by 4 p.m.  I did most of the shopping the day before but bought some fresh vegetables first thing in that morning.

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Here we are, the car unloaded and we are about to begin.

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Below is the list of what we prepared together. At the end of this post, I put up some links to most of the recipes we cooked that I have blogged about.

LIST OF RECIPES

(1) Chicken stock – which we used to make (2 ) Chicken Corn soup (admittedly not an Italian recipe) and (3) Egg Drop Soup (stracciatella).  We also made (4) Salad soup.

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(5) We prepared the easiest of tomato sauces – Marcella Hazan’s tomato sauce using just a can of plum tomatoes, an onion and plenty of butter.  We used this sauce to make (6) riso al pomodoro (rice in tomato sauce) and to cook (7) meatballs in what was left of it.  It would make a delicious sauce for pasta too (8), all one would need is add some freshly grated parmesan.  So just think about this: one tomato sauce and three recipes as a result!

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We prepared previously cooked, shop bought (9) borlotti beans with the rind of pancetta and some tomato paste squeezed out of a tube (we had used the pancetta for the salad soup).  We made (10) pasta e ceci (pasta and chickpea/garbanzo thick soup).  Using my special quick-and-easy technique, one could also make pasta e fagioli, pasta with beans soup, it would be the same procedure.

Pasta dishes:  (11) pasta with broccoli and sausage and (12) spaghetti with garlic, oil and chilli flakes.

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The broccoli and sausage pasta (11) is on the upper left of this photo, next to the carrots.

We  made (13) polpette – meatballs – from scratch and cooked them in the tomato sauce with the addition of peas.  We used thinly sliced chicken breasts to make (14) chicken with ginger (my own recipe) and (15) chicken with oranges.

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We blanched spinach to make (16) spinaci alla romana.  We cooked (17) broccoletti in the oven with olive oil, lemon zest and a dusting of parmiggiano  (parmesan).  We made (18) mashed potatoes the Italian way (with the addition of parmesan and nutmeg).  We also made (19) a pepper stew – peperonata – even though this is not the best seasons for capsicum.  We also sliced some carrots (20) and cooked them down with butter and water.

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We made a very unscientific batter (21) and fried (22) artichokes and (23) courgette/zucchini flowers.

And this marked the end of the savoury dishes.

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Last we made a (24) jam tart (crostata) with wild cherry jam.  When I say ‘we’, I actually made Victoria make it – I know she likes getting her fingers stuck in the job when it comes to baking.   Thank goodness for a stand mixer … I was giving her instructions all backwards, and told her to put the flour in first, instead of the butter.  Ah well, kitchen catastrophes do take place and we have to understand that that is ‘normal’ too, and that we have to find remedies for them.  A good sense of humour and a glass of wine can be very helpful.

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The sour cherry crostata, just out of the oven.

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Victoria, on the left, is holding the crema pasticcera (baker’s custard).

So … all in all …. 25 recipes.  Not bad.  And every single one very easy to make and execute (except for the frying maybe). The whole experience was coloured by banter, joking, exchanging stories and all those conversations that are so good for bonding.  When I got home, a little on the exhausted side physically, but ‘high’ emotionally, I came across an article which just spoke out to me, as if  to pat me on the back as it were – me and all the wonderful ‘ordinary’ people people, not celebrity chefs or ‘slebs’ as Gareth Jones used to call them, ordinary people both male and female, young and old, who understand that cooking is NOT, or at least need not be, a chore.  It  was an interview with  Jules Blaine Davis in which she mentions how her mother admonished her  for relying on take-away/take-out foods so heavily.  Her mother told her in no uncertain terms:

“We need to make the kitchen a place where you can BE, not a place where there are things you have to DO.”

Well … thank you Christine and Victoria.  We certainly did a lot of both ‘doing’ and ‘being’.

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If you are interested in trying some of the recipes above, for which I have written a blog post, you will find the links below.

Recipe for a mixed meat stock/broth: https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2011/11/18/taking-stock-over-making-stock-olivers-brodo/

Lettuce soup: https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2012/02/29/soup-series-salad-soup/

Pasta e ceci soup: https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2011/02/24/pasta-e-ceci/

Pasta e fagioli soup: https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2013/11/14/good-golly-pasta-e-fagioli/

Spaghetti with garlic, oil, chilli, pecorino and mint: https://frascaticookingthatsamore.wordpress.com/2015/08/29/dracula-style-spaghetti-with-garlic-mint-and-pecorino/

Pasta with broccoli and anchovy and pecorino sauce: https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2012/11/13/green-technique-and-sicilian-broccoli-pasta/

Pasta with broccoli and sausage: https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2014/11/25/pasta-with-broccoli-and-sausage-pasta-broccoli-e-salsiccia/

Chicken with orange: https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2010/12/19/the-doleful-door-stop/

Meatballs with peas in a tomato sauce: https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2015/02/01/meatballs-with-peas-polpette-con-piselli/

Mashed potatoes the Italian way: https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2013/02/25/the-comfort-of-a-spud-il-pure-di-patate-mashed-potatoes-italian-style/

Spinaci alla romana (they are mentioned towards the end of the post): https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2014/02/13/going-tuscan-for-st-valentines-peposo-cannellini-and-spinach/

Batter for frying: the ‘unscientific’ recipe we used in our cooking class was the following: 2 serving spoons of ordinary flour plus one of corn starch; repeat until you think you have the desired amount (we did it 4 times).  Add one egg.  Add one spoon of vodka or grappa.  Add one tablespoon of olive oil.  Allow to rest for at least 20 minutes in the fridge. The following link is another way to make batter: https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2012/09/09/my-favourite-batter-for-courgette-blossoms/

Recipe for crostata pastry (pie crust): 300g sifted flour, pinch of salt, 3 egg yolks, 1 whole egg, 150g sugar, 150g butter at room temperature, finely grated lemon zest.

Baker’s custard (crema pasticcera) https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2011/05/15/bakers-custard-crema-pasticcera/

And the flowers are just so beautiful.  Again, thank you.

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Singing for My Supper – The Chores and Pleasures of a Nice Dinner Party

We had some friends over for supper last week and I thought I would do the clever thing without cutting corners, and that is to go for slow-cooked dishes that wouldn’t require me to hover and fuss over them too much, especially not once the guests arrived. So I opted for a menu to include tried-and-tested, crowd-pleasing dishes: egg noodles with duck sauce , followed by a Peposo,  an ancient recipe from Impruneta in Tuscany that is the most minimalist recipe ever for beef stewed in wine, and, as a vegetable side dish (‘contorno’), artichokes braised the Roman way, carciofi alla romana.

Friends coming over to dinner brought loaves of heady-frangranced home made bread, pumpkin and orange soup and potato dauphinois.  Another brought a ricotta cake and my sister-in-law Nadia made the pudding: panettone pudding with a spiced cream redolent of mulled wine.

I smile as I look at the photos I took in anticipation …

1Here is the duck sauce cooking away.  I added a tablespoon of cocoa powder this time, aha!, to give it more depth.  I don’t think anyone noticed but I like to experiment. (https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2011/12/27/fettuccine-with-duck-sauce/)  2

Here is the beef, drowned in red wine, about to be cooked nestling inside an earthenware saucepan . (https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2014/02/13/going-tuscan-for-st-valentines-peposo-cannellini-and-spinach/)  These cooking vessels are brilliant for slow cooked dishes requiring a low heat.3Here is the red wine I used – a very nice selection from Lazio’s Cesanese varietals.4And here are the artichokes I braised : all twelve of them!  I very wisely started cooking them last so that the prepping would coincide with an encouraging glass of fermented grape juice around wine o’clock (do admit, 12 artichokes are a LOT of artichokes to deal with).  (https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2011/03/05/edible-roses-the-seasonally-correct-artichoke-2/).

And the dinner went very well, I am glad to say.  We all enjoyed ourselves, it was a lot of fun.

As for the nex morning, however, what do we get? Lots of washing up to do! That’s what.

8That is the bottom of the pan in which the duck ragu cooked.  Ouff.  Had to leave some water and salt soaking in it for half a day before I was ready to scrub that off.

7Here is the terracotta saucepan in which the peposo cooked.  This is every so easy to wash but one does have to careful because a careless slip of the hand and … crash … no more saucepan.  Plus, it really is very large and quite difficult to handle.9

And this was the big huge pan for the artichokes.  None of these pans, it goes without saying, fit into a dish washer.  So yes … a bit of a pallaver, all told.

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Not to mention the wine glasses.

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And last but not least, the tablecloth needs to be washed and ironed.

For all that I am a sane person and much happier cooking than cleaning and washing up, I have to say I rarely mind the ‘day after’.  I do what has to be done in batches, if I can, and I go over all the nice elements of the night before, reliving the most relishable moments.

img_2254The lovely home made bread.

img_2256Lovely home made butter too!

img_2258And friends and family tucking into the meal.  Conversation.   Laughter.  Teasing.  Glasses clinking. Head nodding of approval.  Head shaking when in disagreement but nobody cares anyway. Pouring of wine (and water too … ).  It’s all about being together. There were ten of us.

img_2266And then it’s time for pudding …. dessert.  Nadia to the rescue.  But we have to clear the table first.

Let me tell you all about that in the next post.

 

Jack’s Seafood Pasta

I went to a delicious Vietnamese cooking class the other evening, held at “Latteria Studio” in Trastevere in Rome and conducted by the very gastronomically talented and simpatica Alice Adams, who hails from Melbourne but has lived in Rome since 2005 (www.aliceadamsfoodstylist.com/about).  We began with Fresh Rice-Paper Rolls and this entailed soaking the round rice paper sheet into some warm water and placing it on the marble top, easy enough.  Then placing the filling in the middle, again easy enough.  But then we had to wrap the roll – and it was incredibly sticky and gossamer thin and involved a lot of concentration and delicate fingerwork.  “A big fiddly, eh Alice, “ I commented as I looked askance at my work, “My roll looks like a huge suppository gone wrong”.  Then we dealt with pork and lemongrass dumplings – which are very similar to ravioli in looks and, again, a bit on the ‘fiddly’ side to execute.  At which point I was prompted me to comment upon the fact that yet another plus side of Italian food is its relative lack of fiddly components.  It is relatively easy to make a three-course Italian meal in under an hour.

Anyone who has been reading me since I began blogging in September 2010 knows that I tend to eschew ‘fiddly’ not out of dislike for the niceties of top level culinary preparations but on account of the more  mundane reason that I am not the most patient of people.  Funnily enough, back in the days when people used to type on a typewriter and mistakes were corrected with a white polish called ‘tippex’, I was one of those who was surprisingly good at whitewashing the wrong-doing. The whole process was incredibly fiddly and one would think that all that tippexing would have honed my dexterity in the kitchen but no, that is not the case.  I tend to be more like Alexander the Great and look for ease of action these days; if I see a Gordian knot anywhere in the kitchen, I either refrain from making that recipe or else look for a cheat’s way of dealing with it.  But not last night.

My friend Jack likes the classic clam pasta dish called “spaghetti alle vongole” and since yesterday was his last night in Italy before returning to Canada, I thought I’d make it for him.  Sometimes, the devil is in the details that have to do with one’s amour propre  – and I do think that the Vietnamese cooking class the other night sort of goaded me into wanting to cook something more sophisticated, more layered, more finished, in other words: more ‘fiddly’.  I am glad to say that this extra effort paid off, and can immodestly claim that it was bloody good.  Jack was flatteringly approving of this seafood pasta recipe and so I have named it after him.

If you want to try it out, let me tell you what the ingredients are.

Top quality pasta.  The best extra virgin olive oil you can muster.  Fresh clams, mussels and king prawns. An onion, peppercorns, parsley stems and leaves, a small tomato, some chilli for the fish stock/bisque.  Garlic.  Basil leaves and toasted pine nuts for the pesto finish.  Italian breadcrumbs (or panko I suppose will do) to toast just before serving the pasta. Salt and pepper.  Secret ingredient (well, not so secret now): ice cubes.

There are a few steps to be followed.  First the bisque has to be prepared.  The pesto too.  And the breadcrumbs toasted.  The clams and mussels need to be steamed in the bisque and olive oil and garlic, and some of their shells removed.  Finally, the pasta needs to be cooked first in the pot of boiling salted water and then in the pan with all that delicious steamed seafood in it.  Once cooked, the pasta is placed in a nice plate and daubed with the pesto and showered with the toasted breadcrumbs.

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Let’s begin!

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Here was my choice of top quality pasta – the Mancini brand spaghettoni.2

Venus clams on the left, mussels on the right.  The clams need to soak in salted water (at least 20 minutes) and then shaken about and rinsed a few times to make sure there is no nasty sand lurking about. The mussels need to be cleaned too and trimmed of their hipster beards. In terms of quantity: think 200g per person for the clams and as for the mussels, about 6-8 per person.

Here are the king prawns : in terms of quantity, think two per person. They are king sized after all!

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The shells/carapace of the prawns needs to be removed. Place the denuded prawns inside a bowl with some cold water in it, enough water to cover them completely (we don’t want them to dry out).

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Place the prawn shells in a pan and turn the heat on.

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Avail yourself of a wooden spoon and just ‘stick it’ to those shells – be brutal and thuggish with them.  Mash them up even, because the more you break up their fabric, the more taste will be released.  Apologies for the ‘steamy’ photo but it’s hard to cook and take photos at the same time.

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Then switch the heat off and … weird, I know … place some ice cubes into the pan.

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Use the wooden spoon in a more gentle fashion now, and swirl those ice cubes around until they fully melt.  The reason for the ice cubes? Apparently, they activate something called ‘thermal shock’ which stops the heat of the cooking temperature in its tracks, and for some chemistry reason that is beyone  my ken enhances the final taste.

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Now, at this point, it is time to add some usual suspects … so I have half an onion, a datterino tomato sliced in half (tomatoes add the oft-required acidity to any dish), parsley stems and peppercorns (they are there but are hiding in this photo).

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Add water. Enough water to cover all the ingredients and then about another 3 inches on top of that.

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Turn the heat on and cook for 10 minutes with a lid on.  Then remove the lid and cook the liquid down for about another 10-12 minutes over a medium flame.

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Strain all the ingredients and you end up with this fishy tasting water known as bisque.  Throw away the shells now but keep the precious bisque, put it in a saucepan which is large enough to contain all the pasta, and place it in a safe place for now.

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Toast the pine kernels/nuts, and be careful to do so over a gentle flame – they burn in no time! Remove from the pan and allow to cool.

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Then place a large bunch of fresh basil leaves in a bowl, pour a good amount of olive oil over them, add a pinch of salt and a twist of pepper, as well as the toasted pine nuts, and using an immersion blender, magically turn everything into a ghoulish green paste very similar to a pesto.  Taste and add more salt and pepper if required.

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Put a tablespoon per pasta serving (think of one serving as 100g of pasta) of breadcrumbs into a non-stick pan.  Dribble olive oil à la Jackson Pollock over it.  And cook over a low heat for a minute or so, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon.  Remove from heat and set aside.

So, at this point: we have made the bisque.  We have made the green basil sauce (pesto). And we have prepared the toasted breadcrumbs.  We are on a roll. Which reminds me, put the pasta water onto boil.  Now is the time. Put a lid on the pan, it boils quicker that way.

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Use as much or as little garlic per person to season the olive oil (at least one tablespoon per serving, and I would recommend even slightly more).  Add some chilli (again as little or as much as you like) to the pan with the olive oil in it.  Turn on the heat and cook the garlic (maker sure it doesn’t burn).  It is surprising how much garlic is required to make this dish taste good.  Normally, for other recipes, I would use less … but for this recipe, I used two cloves per person, and sliced them lengthwise in half.

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Pour this into the big pan.

Time to steam the mussels, clams and prawns.

 

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Place them in the big pan, cover with a lid and cook until they steam open (only a few minutes).

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When they have, remove the lid and add a fistful of parsley leaves.

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Once the pasta has reached a rolling boil, salt it, and add the pasta. Fiddly Factor: You are going to cook the pasta for only HALF the time recommended on the packet.  You will finish off cooking the pasta in the large pan with the seafood in it.

And  so now the tempo charges up.  This  is when one has to keep one’s wits about one’s person and can’t be interrupted bar any emergency.

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Looking good and smelling divine but we need to remove some of the shells.  Asbestos fingers are required for this job, beware: the shells are indeed hot.

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These can be thrown away now.

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And this soupy beauty is what we are left with. Turn the heat on now  (a strong flame) and …

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Add the half-cooked pasta. Now is the time to stir.

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26A vigorous stirring of the pasta, until it soaks up all the liquid, and Jack’s the man for the job.  It might even be that the pasta is still too ‘al dente’ by the time it has absorbed all the liquid: in which case add a ladleful of the cooking water.27

Transfer the now cooked pasta into a serving dish.  And sprinkle the toasted breadcrumbs over it.

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Place the prawns where they can be seen, on top of the pasta.  Create a circle and add a daub of the green sauce in the middle.

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And enjoy!

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Buon appetito!

Always a pleasure to cook for you Jack.  Alla prossima.