Sicily On My Mind Again: A ‘Fake’ Sauce (Sugo Finto) for Ricotta-Stuffed Ravioli

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Chiara Maci is a young Italian TV food blogger/presenter.  I say young because she was born in the 1980s.  One of her recent programmes is called “Italian Bites” – “L’Italia a Morsi” and she travels all over the country to eat in people’s homes – a home restaurant as opposed to a commercial restaurant.  She is a bit like me, i.e. ‘half and half’.  Half of her is from Bologna (North) and the other from Campania Region (South).  She has an extraordinarily beautiful smile and does a lot of telegenic moves on the programme à la Nigella but one can tell that she is the real deal, and is authentic about her love of good food.  Soon after lockdown, I remembered the basics of a Sicilian pasta dish she was making with her hostess Elisa in the Sicilian town of Modica.  My daughter helped me replicate this dish and upon tasting it we decided it was a recipe to be repeated.  Different.

The recipe entails making fresh pasta and cutting it into squares or rounds (I used a glass to do this).  The ‘fake’ sauce is thus named (“sugo finto”) because it contains no meat.  Yep, seriously, that’s why.  Obviously in the past if you couldn’t add meat for whatever reason, it didn’t pass muster or something like that.  Also, while ricotta is utterly ‘normal’ when stuffing ravioli, I was surprised by the inclusion of fennel seeds in the fake sauce. Elisa was lucky enough to have a concentrated form of tomato purée only made in Sicily called “u strattu” … so I had to substitute with just plain tomato purée.  All this to say that today’s blog post is a mannerist interpretation of the recipe (good enough for me).

I am including a link to the episode in question. Move to roughly 35 minutes into the programme to follow the recipe at its source! https://it.dplay.com/food-network/l-italia-a-morsi/stagione-2-episodio-13/

INGREDIENTS:

(1)Fresh pasta: 1 egg per 100g of durum wheat flour (or other flour of your choice) per person (Elisa made hers differently adding water even).  Said rule of thumb yields a hefty portion so I used only 2 eggs/200g flour for three people at lunch that day.

(2)Filling: fresh marjoram leaves, ricotta and caciocavallo cheese

(3)Sauce: fennel seeds, bayleaf, carrot, onion, olive oil, canned plum tomatoes, tomato purée or “strattu” if you can find any !

Freshly grated pecorino cheese to top off the past once plated

 

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THE PASTA: Well,  make the pasta first.  Set aside to rest before rolling it out.  While it is resting you can get on with the fake sauce.

THE SAUCE:

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Chop up the onion and carrot.2

 

Warm some fennel seeds and a couple of bay leaves in a sensible amount of olive oil.5

Don’t wait too long before adding the carrot and onion – we don’t want the fennel to burn or overpower the flavour.6

When the carrot and onion have gone kinda golden – add about two tablespoons of tomato purée.7Then add one large jar of Italian plum tomatoes and a glass of water (not in the photo). Add salt.  Taste.  Maybe a pinch of sugar? You never know.

MAKING THE RAVIOLI

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Use a glass or a cookie cutter to make the ravioli.10

This is fresh marjoram.  From my balcony no less ! Pssst.  I do not have green fingers. Quite the contrary.  The reason I have plenty of marjoram is because marjoram just grows and grows and needs hardly any attention whatsoever, year after year, whatever the weather.11

Caciocavallo cheese on the left and ricotta on the right.  If I’d had a ragusano cheese it would have been divine but I had to make do with caciocavallo.12

Mix the two cheeses, add salt and pepper and the marjoram leaves.15

Stuff the ravioli with this filling.

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My daughter’s ravioli were much nicer than mine.  She has more patience.14

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Use a fork at the end to crenellate/crimp these half-moon packets of promising gorgeousness.   By the way, this is not how the TV Elisa went about it.  She made little triangles and then after folding in half, she ‘pinched’ the edge.

TIME TO COOK AND SERVE !

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Add yet more marjoram to the sauce.20

Cook the ravioli and plonk them straight into the fake sauce in a large saucepan over a high heat.21I sprinkled some pecorino over the dish just before serving the ravioli.

The plate is Sicilian too … and very cheerful and bright.  Which is what we are in need of at the moment.

 

Stale Bread, Kale and Bean Soup (Pancotto con fagioli e cavolo nero)

I am reposting a recipe from 2012  because you know what? It still makes sense.  Especially for this time of year.  It is thoroughly vegetarian and if you are vegan all you have to do is leave the cheese bit out.

https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2012/03/02/dont-dread-stale-bread-make-soup-instead-soup-series/

Don’t dread stale bread – make soup instead (Soup Series)

There is a very traditional soup, with variations throughout Italy, whose body consists of stale bread, added to which, besides broth, are other herbs or vegetables and usually some kind of grated cheese and olive oil.    They all taste pretty delicious in a comforting way and a very dear American friend of mine thought it was a pity, really, that the only name Tradition managed to come up for them was “pancotto”:  which literally means “cooked bread”.  The Tuscan version  has an even less attractive nomenclature: “acquacotta” — which translates as “cooked water”.  It doesn’t sound very enticiting, now, does it?  I thoroughly concur with my friend even though I had never thought about it until she mentioned it.

These were soups that came from whatever scraps a housewife could put together.  Bread holds a sacred place in Italian food generally, it is revered and no meal is ever complete without it.  Even today, Italians will feel very bad about throwing away stale bread, thinking it the height of waste.  There are always uses for it … and soup would have been just one of them.  So …. let’s see what kind of cooked-bread I ended up making!

Please believe me when I say this bread was very dry and stale indeed.  You would have had a very hard time trying to cut it with any knife …

Here is an ugly but very useful large pot …. lots of water within which I heated before adding the stale bread:In it goes …

And when it’s gone all soft and mushy again, out it comes, and gets put into another large pot.

I roughly chopped and then washed some cavolo nero (kale).

That got cooked too, for a few minutes, in the same water that had softened the bread. Drain and set aside.

This is what is left and gets thrown away.  It is too bitter and would ruin the soup.

Drizzle some olive oil into the pan and add chopped garlic and chopped onion and a few peppercorns.

Some carrot and celery will also add to the final taste.  Sauté for a few minutes but do not brown.

These are two rinds of parmesan cheese … another food item that would never have been thrown away (I keep mine in the freezer).  The rind can be grilled but most usually it makes a great addition to any hearty soup.

Beans would very often accompany these soups … and so who am I to disagree with tradition!  Keep some cooked beans to hand.  They get added to the soup after it has cooked for a while.  If you add them too soon, they become too mushy.

THE COOKING OF THE BREAD AND WATER BEGINS!

Add the parmesan rinds to the soup pot …

The “cavolacci” (translation: “bad” or “ugly” cabbage) as they are called here in Lazio go in next ….

Next, the soffritto … the sautéed carrot, onion, celery and garlic ….

Pour in water, enough water to cover everything.  Turn on the heat and simmer for about 30 minutes.  Add salt and pepper somewhere along the timeline.

Add the cannellini beans about ten minutes before serving.

I love my herbs, so I always add some chopped mixed herbs too, towards the end.  This is a mixture of parsely, marjoram and rosemary.

The parmesan rinds will have given off their final taste to the soup and can be removed. Taste the soup and make sure all is well in the salt-and-pepper department.

SERVE

You can serve this soup with either grated parmesan or pecorino.  A drizzle of olive oil.  And for those who like chilli, add that too.

A soup based on leftovers doesn’t sound like much, does it?  And yet … and yet … and yet … it tastes dashed good, yes, you bet!

P.S. And yes, I do know what Lord Curzon supposedly said … “No gentleman takes soup at luncheoon”.  Well, in Italy they did and they do … and it wasn’t just the ‘gentlemen’!

Asparagus and Courgette Risotto for Belinda

 

Today’s post is about every cloud having a silver lining when dinner needs to be made.

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The ‘cloud’ in question was the lack of an ingredient – proper, nice locally grown romanesque courgettes/zucchine such as the ones shown in the photo above.  The ‘silver’ turned out to be my having to add asparagus to the recipe, in order to bolster the overall taste, and the result is the recipe I am writing about today.

It is very easy to find the romanesque cougettes where I live, the markets and veggie shops sell them all the time (sometimes even when they are theoretically out of season).  It just so happened that for various reasons of busyness and business, I had to perforce opt for my least favourite place for sourcing vegetables – the supermarket.  You should have seen my face, I was hardly able to contain a surly stance as I looked around.  Most of the veggies looked sad or came in plastic packaging.  The artihcokes were floppy instead of firm.  Onions hailing from Argentina and Egypt???? What, we can’t grow onions in Italy?  Garlic from Morocco.  Don’t get me started.  And, just as I had surmised, there wasn’t a local romanesque courgette to be seen, only those dark green tasteless kind, very fleshy, very watery and seriously unappetising unless you choose to jolly them up with all kinds of gastronomic bells and whistles.  Yes, I do boycott supermarkets because I think their policies towards producers are thoroughly reprehensible but that is not the only reason:  you simply cannot compare their produce with the good stuff sold at markets and greengrocers.  No contest.  Harumphm, sniff and snort, thus spake Frascati Cooking That’s Amore.  I had to grudgingly admit that the asparagus weren’t bad looking, so I bought two bunches.

Once home, I got on with the risotto.  Since the end result was actually very good indeed, I have to do an about-turn and say to myself that it was thanks to the forced option of dark green courgettes that I came up with the recipe in the first place.  There you go, always a bit of Pollyanna lurking about in me.

This risotto was in honour of visitors from New Zealand, Belinda and her husband Peter, together with friends Alison and Gary.  That’s why I am calling this the “Belinda Risotto”.

Okay on with the recipe now.

INGREDIENTS:

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Courgettes/zucchine, asparagus, 1 carrot, 1 onion, 1 celery stalk, carnaroli or vialone nano rice (arborio will do it that’s all you can find), olive oil, half a lemon, mascarpone, one apple, parmesan, fresh mint, a teensy amount of fresh rosemary.

COURGETTES: I started by slicing HALF the courgettes into rounds which I set aside, and slicing the other HALF into rounds which I then roasted in the oven until they were cooked.

ASPARAGUS: I trimmed the asparagus of its points, then cut the rest of the asparagus spear also into thick rounds.  I used what was left of the asparagus spears to boil into an aparagus ‘stock’  of sorts.

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On the left … I chopped up the carrot, onion and celery and sweated them down in extra virgin olive oil before adding the courgettes.  On the right, are the tough part of the asparagus spears that I was simmering for about 15 minutes.

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I threw them away and kept the cooked water to use as stock for the risotto.

img_2836.jpgI transferred the cooked courgettes into a saucepan and added the asparagus stock – and proceeded to blend all the ingredients into a thick creamy stock.  I added a little squeeze of lemon juice.

While all this was going on, in the meantime, this is what I was doing with the OTHER HALF of the courgettes:

IMG_2837I coated them with olive oil.

IMG_2839And roasted them in the oven until they went a nice golden colour.

 

IMG_2840I added more water to the asparagus and courgette stock and got it simmering.  I dropped a large tablespoon of butter into it for good measure.

IMG_2841And now I could get cracking the the risotto.  As you can see from this photo, the stock is simmering away in the background and the risotto is being toasted in the foreground.  Please notice: no olive oil, no butter, no nuffink.  Once the rice turns pearly white, add a ladle of the hot stock, let it get absorbed, and add more.

IMG_2842A risotto will take about 18-20 minutes to cook.  Once you are getting close to the end, add the asparagus that you chopped up, as well as the spears.  Keeping stirring and keep adding the stock.  Taste and add salt and pepper.

IMG_2843Add the roasted courgette rounds, the mint and the rosemary.  Nearly there.

IMG_2844And here is the touch of cheat’s genius: a good dollop of mascarpone. Add some of the grated parmesan too, at this point, and taste.  You might need more salt, a twist of white pepper would not go astray.  A little bit of butter will also help.

img_2845.jpgThis was a serving of the risotto the next day, i.e. the leftovers.  I didn’t get a chance to take photos as I was serving the risotto, there was too much chatting going on and people’s appetites were more than ready for quick relief.  Those pretty flowers are flowers that I picked from my chives on the balcony.  Look closely and you’ll see a couple of little cubes: those are bits of apple. The apple complemented the dish really well.

img_2846.jpgThank you for inspiring me Belinda!

Consumer Friendly Consommé

Clear soup, that’s what we are talking about.  Something frightfully old fashioned.  I have only heard about it in books or films or TV series like Poirot or other Agatha Christie storylines.  I thought I’d give it a go.

Ingredients for my easy version:

500 finely minced/ground beef (a cheap cut), 1 carrot, 1 onion, 1 celery stick, a few cloves, 1 bayleaf, 1 egg white.

Place all the ingredients in your pot and add cold water – about 1 litre or just over depending on how ‘strong’ you want it.

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You can just about make out the bayleaf up at the top there.4This is the egg yolk that gets left behind; do NOT put it in the stock.  The egg white serves to ‘clarify’ the soup.

5This is a photo to show the egg yolk in the soupd but it’s not very easy to spot.  What I have spotted, instead, is a celery leaf – and that is a major no-no when making stock/broth.  Rule of thumb says no leaves except bay leaf.  Now that I am writing this post, I remember what happened.  I didn’t have any celery in the fridge and these measely leaves were all I had.

Add salt.

6Use a whisk or other utensil to shake things up a bit, to unloosen the minced beef.

7Turn the heat on and give it a good stir.  And I mean stir! Stir energetically for a few seconds.

Then, let it be, let it simmer over a very low heat for about 40 minutes.

8And this is what it looks like.  See how ‘clear’ the stock is?

9Drain the soup-making elements.  I would love to say one could make something of the meat that is left behind … but basically all the taste has been boiled out of it.  So … be kind and give it your dog.

10And now you are ready to serve.  Taste it first, in case it needs more salt.

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12Who says old-fashioned can’t be exquisite?  Please note: consommé is to be drunk straight out of its cup, no spoon soup to be used.

Try drinking a glass of sherry with this, and proceed with wine for the rest of the meal.

P.S.  I actually did not serve the consommé straight away.  I let the consommé cool down and refrigerated to use the next day.  When it came out of the fridge it was a bit like jelly.  Nor was the liquid clear any longer  – and I was mortified.

No worries:  Once the consommé got heated up again, it regained its former glory in look and feel and tasted delicious.

Yuletide Meatloaf with Porcini Mushrooms

Meatloaf, or polpettone as it is known in Italian, must surely rank as the most evocative of home food repasts both in Europe and North America, the embodiment of what a good housewife/mother or grandmother could put together for the family meal.  Wholesome, tasty, comforting and satiating, a meatlof would never aspire to la-di-da but neither would have the better-off classes sneered their noses down at what is basically a huge sausage.  We have all grown so much more sophisticated these past few decades where meals and cuisines are concerned thanks to TV programmes and social media and, let’s face it, a bit of an obsession over eating in general but I would wager that none of us would think it stonkingly out of place if we were to be served a meatloaf at a friend’s house for a meal – slightly out of fashion maybe, like food from the 1970s, or perhaps quaint, but not ‘wrong’ as such.  And that is because there is an intrinsic honesty to a meatloaf; it can’t lie, and there is only so much tweaking that can be apportioned to it upon pain of distorting, misrepresenting and downright perverting its nature.  So let’s hear it for the meatloaf, say I, let’s make it welcome even in the 21st century.  At the same time, and I realise I might be raising a hackle or two in saying so, let us not turn to any Ottolenghi-inspired makeovers, his shopping list alone would be an insult to what a meatloaf is all about.  Simple.  It is not supposed to make an impression or draw attention to itself.

It is supposed to be good, however, of course !  And the version I am about to talk to you about was definitely most enticing, taught to me and members of a group who had the good fortune to be invited to stay at the Casamora Farm for a gastronomy tourism workshop in Tuscany last June.  This farm and holiday destination is famous for many things, including its top notch extra virgin olive oil.  Owned and run by the erudite architect Maurizio Montani Fargna and his delightful energetic wife Matilde Visconti, a lot of historical family blood and background courses through their veins.  The photo below was snapped by Annalee Archie, who wrote about our experience on her tavoladelmondo.com website (see ‘tags’). They were the kindest of hosts and Maurizio a most engaging conversationalist.

casamora-by-lee

They turned to Stefania Barzini and her trusty friend and assistant Paola Colombo to run the cooking classes and I was overjoyed to take part.  What wasn’t there to like?

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But first a confession.  I am one of the few people in the world who would find meatloaf a challenge.  Indeed, one of my attempts turned out to be an outsized disaster and saw me transmogrifying a meatloaf into a cottage pie, sigh (https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2013/09/26/sheepish-in-meatloaf-battle-or-cottage-pie-a-litalienne/).  So the fact that Stefania was going to see us through a meatloaf from scratch was quite a boon.

INGREDIENTS

Dried porcini mushrooms, milk, bread, onions, carrots, good extra virgin olive oil, 1kg minced meat/ground beef, 1 egg, roughly chopped parsely, grated parmesan cheese, freshly ground nutmeg if desired, salt and pepper, flour, wine, plum tomatoes

The first thing to do is soak the porcini in hot water for at least twenty minutes, better still for one hour.  The mushrooms will regain some moisture and the liquid will be impregnated with their taste.

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Then soak some bread in milk until it has softened but not become too soggy:

53Put the minced meat in a mixing bowl.

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Add the bread and 1 egg.

7Then add the grated parmesan cheese.

9Add the rougly chopped parsely.

10Add some grated nutmeg (if you like it) and combine the ingredients, using your hands.

11Add salt and pepper last.  That’s it for now.  Stefania and Paola work in unison.

It’s now time to make a simple ‘soffritto’: chop a couple of onions and two carrots and sauté them in a frying pan that will be large enough to hold two meatloaves.

4The olive oil we used was, naturally, Casamora’s own evoo, one of the best in all of Italy.

15Once the onion and carrot have softened (about 5-minutes, you don’t want the onion to brown), you can start adding the porcini mushrooms.

16Remember our meat?  Now is the time to divide it and shape it into two loaves.  Then, using plenty, and I mean plenty, more than one would think!, flour … dredge the loaves so that they are utterly coated in flour.  No skimping !

17And now that the mushrooms have cooked a while, Stefania is about to lower the loaves into the pan.

And here we are: both loaves are in, the flame is a strong one, and a lid is placed on top of the pan.

20After about 10 minutes, off comes the lid, and in goes plenty of wine.  Please note: never sprinkle the wine on top of the meat itself.

21Stefania  makes a little room between the loaves and then turns them over (not as easy as one might think).

22In go two tins of plum tomato passata.  Unlike with the wine, it’s okay to slather the loaves with the tomatoes !

23On goes the lid … and we have to wait a little bit.  By a little bit,  I mean … oh very well, then, I’ll have to own up: I can’t remember how long.  Probably about 20 minutes or so ?

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Tieta Madia doesn’t mind waiting (https://chivoltailculamilan.com/).

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Nor do Matilde Visconti (centre) or Annalee Archie (on the right).

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And then it’s time to pour in some of the water that the porcini mushrooms had steeped in.  Dried porcini mushrooms are notorious for wanting to hang on to the soil they grew in, and there is bound to be some grit in the water.  Better to strain the porcini water through a fine mesh strainer before pouring it into the pan.  And now is the time to banish the lid.  The liquid has to cook down.

27After about another 10 minutes or so (yes, I know, I  know, I am only guessing – but surely I can’t be too off the chronological mark?) …. the sauce has thickened beautifully, the meat is cooked through and all is well in the meatloaf world.

28This is what one of the loaves looked like just before being served.  I wish I had more photos of it on the plate but I was too busy eating and enjoying my lunch by then.

So yes … a humble dish with an aristocratic ingredient, the porcini mushroom, also known as ceps in English.  Not too shabby as a yuletide dish … what do you reckon?