Fennels for Phyllis – A Tart

No, no no, Phyllis is not a tart.  She’s a friend of mine.

And when it comes to fennel – well, I say, fennels for anybody who likes fennel, and not just Phyllis.

I, however? If fennel were to disappear from the world, I would not miss it.  I feel the same way about cauliflower.  I will and do eat both vegetables, weirdly enough, it’s just that I don’t gush over them.  True, fennel can be eaten on its own, raw, dunked in olive oil with salt and pepper.  Otherwise, just as with cauliflower, it always requires some kind tarting up.  Raw cauliflower? Yikes, no amount of over-seasoned dip can take away its horribleness for me.

I was having this conversation with Phyllis Knudsen, a former chef from Vancouver and author of oracibo.com, whose experience and outlook on food I greatly admire.  That and she cracks me up, she’s really funny and, you will agree, we all need cart loads of humour just now the way the world is going.  I read an article a couple of weeks ago that maintains we are living in a golden age, with statistics to prove the point.  It was written in 2016 and has immense merits (here’s a link if you want to read it: https://www.spectator.co.uk/2016/08/why-cant-we-see-that-were-living-in-a-golden-age/) – it’s just that it doesn’t often FEEL as though we are living in a golden age, I don’t know about you.  Whatever.  Hats off to all those who make life lighter for us, and that means you too Phyllis.

But back to tarting up and a recipe that turns fennel into a tart with surprisingly good results.  Take a look.

 

Slice the fennel in rounds, quite thick ones at that and cook them in a pan with olive oil and butter over quite a strong heat.

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Turn the fennel rounds over just the once, and sprinkle some salt too.

IMG_1440Silly me, I didn’t take a photo first but … if you look closely on the right hand side above, you will see an amber-coloured goo underneath the cooked fennel.  That goo is gorgeous honey.  So, avail yourself of a 26cm baking tray and enjoy the zen-like activity of trickling honey over the tray (not too much honey, however!).

Turn the oven on at 200° Celsius.

IMG_1442Scatter a good amount of grated parmesan cheese over the fennel.  Add some thyme if you have any.  I didn’t and had to make do with oregano.

IMG_1443Cover the fennel with pastry.  This was store bought, so easy peasy.  Use a fork to make some holes in the pastry.  And bake for about 30-35 minutes.

IMG_1449The pastry has puffed up beautifully.

Get hold of a plate that will cover the baking tray and turn the tart over, onto the plate/dish.

IMG_1451Add some fennel fronds to the tart, to add freshness.

IMG_1454IMG_1453And was it good, you might wonder?

Indeed it was.  And I shall definitely make this again.  And I still  maintain that fennel needs pampering, bla bla bla, droning on and on and on ….

 

How to Put Some Bling into Sad Green Beans

There are many hospitals in Rome and quite a few,  just like in London, named after a saint.  One of these is called the San Camillo hospital.  Now, we all know what hospital food is like, hardly ‘food’ at all, nothing to look at, tasteless and egregiously unappetising. And it is moreover very very very very plain, bland,   So for some reason completely unbeknownst to me, perhaps some wicked finger pointing dating back to goodness knows when, when conversation veers towards the topic of uninteresting food in Rome, very often people will make reference to San Camillo.  “Gosh, this is so tasteless, just the sort of fare you’d get at the San Camillo” might be one such comment.  Or: “Tell your mother that this wouldn’t do even at the San Camillo”.  Or yet again: “Oi! I’m going to add plenty of pancetta, we’re not at the San Camillo you know!”.  You get the picture.

And thus it is amongst some members of my family with regard to green beans.  They can so easily slide into the San Camillo slot when I serve them, just simmered and then seasoned with olive oil and lemon juice.  Some will refuse to eat them altogether.  Others will take the tiniest of portions and squeeze more lemon juice over them.  I happen to like them that way, so there, mneah.   It’s not as if I lose sleep over green beans.  I just happen to like them.

But I did have second thoughts over some leftovers in the fridge last week.

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When I took it in the ‘look’ of that cold glass bowl, I had a San Camillo  moment, I have to confess.  It looked thoroughly underwhelming.  Sad even.  And so after a little head scratching, I went about ways of making these green beans a bit more interesting. Tell me what you think.  Here we go.

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Lardo di Colonnata.   Lard.  Mmmm. Always good.

IMG_9487Some olive oil, chilli and garlic – classic concoction.

IMG_9488Rosemary needle, chopped very fine.  Now that’s different where green beans are concerned.

IMG_9489And though I am not a huge lover of balsamic vinegar (not in salads, that is), why not? I thought to myself.

So much for othe ingredients.  The cooking part was easy, for obvious reasons.

IMG_9490IMG_9491IMG_9492IMG_9493Don’t forget the salt too.

The balsamic vinegar last.

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I think next time I will add less balsamic vinegar.  Probably the best thing is to add a little at a time.

IMG_9496I’m not sure I would bend over backwards to serve green beans this way every time but I think the final result was pretty good.

IMG_9497Nothing “San Camillo” about this whatsoever.  Tee hee.

How to Hack a Caponata di Melanzane: Sweet and Sour Aubergine Recipe

I think the best way to hack a caponata is to get someone else to make one for you but he or she has to be trustworthy.  A caponata made without love can be a very disappointing affair.  I am not a goody goody, by the way, and rely on tricks and tips and short-cuts to make life run more smoothly, but when it comes to certain dishes there can be no cutting of corners.

I started out well enough, in an Eiffel Tower kind of way.

IMG_9474I cut up some aubergines/eggplant into chunks, sprinkled salt over them and placed a plate and weight over them to help their inner liquid demon ooze out more readily. By the way, the Le Creuset-type cast iron saucepan you see?  Slightly battered.  So sad, I dropped it the other day and was on the brink of throwing it away but just couldn’t find the heart to do so because it had belonged to my Swedish grandmother and so it is easily close to being 100 years old.  It can continue to be used in other ways.

IMG_9476IMG_9477I had left the aubergines to sweat for at least an hour and this is how much ‘stuff’ they released.

 

Time to rince the aubergine chunks thoroughly, to rid them of the salt.

IMG_9480Time to squeeze the water out of them.  This can be a bit of a pallaver so another good hack is to find an obliging husband to do this manly job for you.

Now the whole point of salting the aubergines is to make frying them a happy affair: they will not absorb too much oil and their texture will be more pleasing.  So, give yourself brownie points for not skipping this important step.

Off I went out then and did whatever it was I went out to do BUT I took an awful long time doing it.  Hence,  when I came home, it was late and supper had to be made and I was tired and was in no mood for frying these aubergines. Which is what is required of a true, proper Caponata di Melanzane. After a bit of head scratching and huffing and puffing and chiding myself for wanting to attempt a caponata on a busy day, I decided to go maverick.  Be a caponata iconoclast! I told myself.

IMG_9481I lay the chunks on a pyrex dish and dribbled some nice olive oil and sprinkled a little bit of  salt and … yes, you guessed it.  I put them in the oven to cook.  (Where’s that icon for the palms of both hands resting on both cheeks in a show of amazement?).  UNHEARD OF!

IMG_9484They cooked in the oven at 180°C for about 40 minutes.

IMG_9504When they cooled down, I covered them in plastic wrap and put them in the fridge.  I was exhausted and went to bed.

THE NEXT DAY

img_9584.jpgI placed 4 tablespoons of sugar in a small pan and poured white wine vinegar to cover it by more than 1 inch.  Cook the vinegar until the sugar melts and set aside.

img_9581.jpgChop up some onions and cook over a low heat.  Add a bit of salt as well as sugar.IMG_9585When the onions have gone golden ..

IMG_9586Add some very good-quality Italian plum tomatoes.  A caponata is best made with sweet fresh tomatoes but I didn’t have any on me.  I used a pair of scissors to chop ’em directly in the saucepan.  This is the ‘salsa’ that we are preparing, and it should cook for about 15-20 minutes.

IMG_9587Celery.  Celery is an integral part.  Pare the celery stalks, cut them up and blanch them in some salted boiling water. Drain and set aside.

img_9588.jpgAlso – but I don’t have any photo – rinse some salt dried capers over and over again, and have them at the ready.

IT ALL COMES TOGETHER

Add the celery and cook for a couple of minutes.

IMG_9590IMG_9591The sauce was getting a little thick and now was the right time to pour in the sweetened vinegar.  Sorry, no photo of me pouring it in.

IMG_9592Then in go the baked aubergines.

IMG_9593Lots of fresh basil.  Combine all the ingredients.  Job done, the heat can be turned off.

IMG_9594One last thing.  Toast some pine kernels.

img_9595.jpgOnce it had all cooled down, I put the caponata in a glass container in the fridge.  So the great thing about this recipe is that it can be prepared in advance.

IMG_9652We were getting ready for an outdoor grill with family, at my in-laws’ house in the Marche and the caponata took pride of place where the vegetable side dishes were concernerd.

IMG_9653I stuck some more fresh basil in the middle.

SSSI9783And everyone said the caponata tasted lovely.

I, being a fusspot, continue to prefer the fried version.  But it’s good to know that the next best thing is the oven approach.

I don’t know whether you are acquainted with Frank Fariello? If not, you should definitely check out his super blog “Memorie di Angelina”.  Bless him, he wrote the following comment on a recent post I had written:

“Lighter it may be but never as good.” Amen, I say, to that. I’ve tried various light version of parmigiana and they’re invariably disappointing. Nothing like the original recipe, heavy as it may be. I remember my grandmother dipped her eggplant slices in flour and egg as well. Made the dish even heartier but boy was it heavenly!

 

We’re on the same page Frank and I … I am a fried-food-fanatic! But, if you don’t like the idea of frying, this oven cooked aubergine caponata will do very well indeed, I promise.

Patience Permitting, a Parmigiana di Melanzane Most Fitting

My friend Libby, with help from our friend Sandy, prepared a wonderful aubergine/eggplant gratin for our lunch in the Umbrian countryside towards the end of last September (i.e. in 2017).  It was a lovely sunny day, one that allowed us to enjoy the al fresco backdrop to it all, served over what was once an olive millstone.

IMG_0598As we tucked into the dish, we commented appreciatingly about it and drew similarities to the classic Parmigiana di Melanzane.

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Sandy was quite amazed at how much oil the sliced rounds of aubergine guzzled as she pan fried them.  For the rest, it was a fairly simple dish to prepare.  The sauce was made with chopped fresh tomatoes, garlic and olive oil, and the layers were showered with grated parmesan.  They are then cooked in the oven until done. Fresh basil added at the very end.  And more parmesan can be added to the serving on the individual dish.

Instead, a Parmigiana di Melanzane, a proper one that is, ranks top of the list in the High Maintenance Category of summer recipes.  Which is why it is so highly appreciated at the dinner table when a friend or family member serves it and, also, why it can be the cause of much gustatory disappointment when it doesn’t live up to its standards.  There can be no cheating when it comes to a good Parmigiana di Melanzane, although variations are admitted (see two links at the bottome of this post).  And that means that the slices must be fried in olive oil and not ‘cooked’ in the oven (roasted).  When I overhear comments like “Oh, the roasted/grilled version is much lighter and just as good”, I turn my eyes heavenwards or allow myself an inward groan.  Lighter it may be but never as good.

The parmigiana di melanzane comes with not a little baggage when it comes to both historical fact and conjecture (not to mention nonsense).  Dishes were cooked “alla parmigiana” (i.e. cooked with parmesan and inside a dish that could be placed in an oven) well before aubergines even arrived in Italy.  The Latin word “parma” means a shield – and the way the sliced aubergines are set out in the dish does indeed resemble a short of ‘shield’ – so much so that an emiment Italian food historian, Massimo Montanari, reckons that could  be behind the naming of the dish.  The recipe most likely originated in Naples whose rulers were also those of Sicily until Italy became a nation in 1861 – and that would explain why both lay claim to the orgin of this recipe.

I think I’ll just get on with it now and leave history behind for a bit.

1This is how I prepped the aubergines/eggplants – I took a lot of skin off.34I sliced them length-wise and sprinkled plenty of salt over them.

5I placed the slices between two large plates.7I put a heavy saucepan over the plates, to squeeze the aubergine slices and help rid them of whatever liquid in them makes them slightly bitter.9This was quite the tower I created in the kitchen, eh!, what do you think!10It didn’t take long for the aubergines to start ‘perspiring’.11So much so, that quite a lot of liquid started trickling out.121314I had left (if I remember correctly) the aubergines to sweat away for one hour – and then threw away the liquid and put the slices of aubergine to rinse in a tub of cold water.  I then patted them dry, or as dry as I could.

While all that was going on, in the meantime, I was making the tomato sauce, with fresh tomatoes.  It was the  height of Summer after all when tomatoes are at their best.

1516Get hold of the sweetest tomatoes you can lay your  hands on, cut them in half, cut an onion in  half, sprinkle plenty of salt and add a few basil leaves.

17Turn the heat on and cook for about 20 minutes.

18

19Use a food mill to strain the tomatoes.19aDon’t throw the watery bit away – you can use it in another sauce. Or make a Bloody Mary with it!20Our sauce can be cooked down now.  Add some olive oil.21Cook away, add some salt, taste, add a pinch of sugar if you think it needs it.  Set aside.

Time to start frying.

22Pour plenty of olive oil into your frying pan.

23.jpg24.jpgDry the slices of aubergine as much as you can – and then get frying.252627This is the busy bit: the aubergines being fried in batches, then left to drain on a colander.  But it gets exciting too!  Notice how little oil drips off the fried aubergines? See below.

27a

Time to start assembling.  The hard part is over.

28.jpgSpoon some sauce onto the bottom of a baking dish – not a lot.

29

Place one layer of aubergines, some mozzarella, plenty of grated parmesan.  Regarding the mozzarella: cut it up and put it in a colander/sieve for about one hour before use.  That will help to dry it out.30

31Add some tomato sauce: not too much.32Repeat until you finish all the aubergines.  Add one last dolloping of the tomato sauce on top, as well as some more olive oil.  Bake in an oven at 200°C for about an 40-45 minutes (maybe less? I can’t remember, sorry – but you’ll see when it’s ready).

33

A parmigiana di melanzane is best eaten at room temperature.

Yes, it does take a lot of time and there is quite a lot of fuss.  But, maybe, once a year? Is it worth it?  Of course it is.

Below are the links I  mentioned earlier on, that are a variation on the theme … These other two recipes were also good, by all means, but this one ranks highest in my opinion. And I suppose I can put that down to the salting of these nightshades, these shady aubergines/eggplants.

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

(2) https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2011/03/01/seasonally-incorrect/

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.

Hipster Salad (A Cover-Up for Making Do)

A cover-up for making do with what I found in the fridge/freezer that day, to serve as dinner for me and my husband.  To cut a long story short, we were supposed to have gone out that evening but events beyond our control weighed in.  What-to-do-What-to-do-What-to-do?  All I found was: 1 apple, some green salad leaves (not many at that), a packet of bacon, and some minced beef left over from a previous burger dinner.

I did have a massive bunch of carrots and decided to make them the star dish of the evening (I’ll write about them in another post).  For the rest, I was basically ‘forced’ into being ‘creative’.  As fate would have it, I had an old-fashioned soup tureen staring at me near the kitchen and waiting for me to find a place to put it away.  For some weird inexplicable reason, I decided to use it as a salad bowl that evening.

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And then burst out laughing as I thought of  my dear friend Victoria, and our shared dislike of hipster food presentations that were crowding Facebook a few years ago.  Never say never, eh Victoria?

Anyway, on with the story.

 

 

I began by frying the bacon.

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I sliced an onion and squeezed plenty of lemon juice over it.

IMG_8616Once the bacon had cooled, I added it as well as slices of apple and the green salad leaves.  I had sprinkled lemon juice over the apple prior to that, to prevent the slices from going brown.

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Also, I seem to espy one solitary max two small tomatoes?  I’d forgotten about those.

IMG_8619There you go.  And the soup tureen was just the right size for salad for two.

IMG_8620The braised carrots, the star attraction that evening, provided the idea of abundance and bright colour inspiration.  There were a few meatballs too for us (and ketchup sssssh, don’t tell anyone).

My husband had the good grace to smile at what he saw when he came home … and didn’t notice the raw onion until the next morning, by which time it had left a distinct impression on his palate.  I think I might make this salad again you know …. but call it something else. BLT salad anyone?

Bruschetta Basics

A bruschetta (pronounced bruce-kettah) is a slice of toasted bread with some kind of topping on it.  It’s as basic as that.  The bread should, ideally, be toasted over some kind of grill or griddle pan, and leave ‘marks’ on it, but a hot oven will do.  What is known as a ‘broiler’ in American English and an oven grill in English English will also do.  But no frying.  A bruschetta is never fried.

The most typical and iconic of all bruschetta’s (bruschette in the Italian plural) is a drizzle of excellent quality olive oil and some salt.  The variation on that is to rub some garlic on the toasted bread before adding the olive oil.  I find that less and less people are serving it this way in Italy because younger Italians can’t hack raw garlic any more, not the way their grandparents could.

The second most typical variation is a topping made of tomatoes, basil, salt, olive oil and some garlic – the latter used only in moderation and never rubbed on the bread as in the days of yore but simply added to the salsa-like tomato concoction.

Could anything be easier to make? And yet, even in this no brainer of a recipe there are a couple of tips that can make a tomato-topped bruschetta something heavenly as opposed to just okay.  Ready?

So the first thing is to opt for the best quality ingredients that you can lay your hands on: good Italian bread, nice tomatoes, good extra virgin olive oil etc.

img_8464.jpgI decided to peel the larger tomatoes because it is their pulp that I was after.  The smaller tomatoes on the right, however, were sweet and ripe enough and needed no peeling.

img_8466.jpgI began by peeling and then quartering the larger tomatoes.  If you can’t be bothered to peel them, fine.   I am only showing you what I did.

IMG_8467After quartering them, I removed all the stuff and seeds from their middle.

img_8468.jpgYou see? This is what I removed.  You don’t have to throw it away – you could use it in some kind of soup for instance.

IMG_8465You don’t even have to throw away the skin that gets peeled off – you can dry the tomato skins and then fry them and add them as a finishing touch to any dish.

img_8469.jpgNow roughly chop/dice the tomatoes .

img_8470.jpgAnd then we want to drain the tomatoes of their excess liquid which tends to be on the acidic side.  So put the chopped tomatoes in a colander over a bowl, and let them drip away for about 10 minutes or so.

img_8471.jpgAfter that, time to assemble.  Place the chopped tomatoes in a bowl, add some garlic, sliced large enough that it can be put aside just before serving, plenty of basil leaves, lots of olive oil and a good pinch of salt.  Let this stand for about five, maximum 10, minutes. If you let it stand longer – that’s when yukky disaster bruschetta ensues.  Totally unappetising.  So, yes, timing is all.  Also, remember the good cook’s mantra: taste, taste, taste.  If the tomatoes are a bit acidic, add a pinch of sugar too.

img_8472.jpgThe bread still nice and hot.  Add the topping and serve!

So.  Not at all difficult to make but yes … timing is of utmost importance.  The topping is not something that can be prepared in advance.  This is fresh and last-minute stuff.

So summery, so delicious.