On Matters of Batter and Fried Chicken

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RECIPE and TIPS

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

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

Batter Ingredients:

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

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

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

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

(4)Breadcrumbs: optional

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

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

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

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

OR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SERVE.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

EYHC4361Frying away …

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

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

IMG_7609

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

POST SCRIPTUM

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

 

 

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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19

 

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.

 

My Own ‘Cheat’ Parmigiana di Melanzane Recipe

Sometimes I post a blog after a distance of three weeks: today I am posting three recipes all on the same day.   And they are all about aubergines/eggplant.  It must be that I am fired up by aubergines today?

If there is something that makes me almost weep with gastronomic pleasure, it’s a properly make parmigiana di melanzane, a layered aubergine and mozzarella bake in a tomato sauce with parmesan thrown in for good measure and a key ingredient that gives the recipe its name.  I wrote a blog about it last year:

https://frascaticookingthatsamore.wordpress.com/2018/08/31/patience-permitting-a-parmigiana-di-melanzane-most-fitting/

“Patience Permitting, A Parmigiana di Melanzane most Fitting” – the title says a lot, doesn’t it.  Yes, yes indeed.  This is a recipe that takes a LOT of time and patience and one that I most likely make only once or twice a year.

So … I thought that I might work out a ‘cheat’ version – never as good, obviously, but all in all nothing to sneer at.

Take a look.

INGREDIENTS

Aubergine, flour, oil for frying (this time I used olive oil but you can also use groundnut oil which has a good smoke point), mozzarella, tomato sauce, grated parmesan cheese, basil

1Start by slicing the aubergine into ‘chips’ and then flouring them.  The reason they need to be floured before frying is that they will otherwise absorb an awful lot of oil.  The flour acts like a sheath.  Shake the excess flour off the chips before frying them.

2Fry them until they go crisp.   Lay them on kitchen paper that will absorb any excess oiliness.

3Wait for them to cool down a little and then place them in a roasting pan – I happened to use this pyrex dish.  Add chunks of mozzarella. Sprinkle some salt.

4Add a layer of tomato sauce, scatter some basil leaves, and sprinkle some parmesan.

5Repeat the same procedure, with another layer.

6Bake until cooked.  Add more fresh mozzarella and basil leaves just before serving.

Not quite as lip-licking delicious compared with a ‘proper’ parmigiana di melanzane but it’ll do when time is of the essence.

My Mother’s Aubergine/Eggplant Sandwich

Since I wrote about my mother-in-law’s recipe with aubergines, I think it might be a good idea to also include one of my own mother’s aubergine recipes.  This is not about rivalry between mothers-in-law but, rather, about variety being the spice of life.

INGREDIENTS

Aubergine/eggplant, flour, egg, oil for frying (groundnut oil), mozzarella, anchovy

Start by turning the oven on.  Isn’t it weird how so many summer dishes actually entail having to deal with a hot oven? Sigh.

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Flour on the left, beaten eggs on the right.  You might even add a little water to the beaten egg.  I had to water down my egg wash once because I didn’t have enough eggs to hand and everything worked out just fine.

2Slice the aubergine into rounds.

3Flour them on both sides and then dip them in the egg wash.

4Fry them on both sides.

5Pat the top of the fried aubergine with some kitchen paper to absorb any excess oiliness. Then sprinkle a little bit of salt.  Only a little.

6The idea is to make a sandwich with the slices of fried aubergine.  Place some mozzarella and a fillet of anchovy (the kind that is packed in oil) on one slice, add some basil and then bring the two halves together.

7Bake in the oven (200°C I would say) until they are done – about half an hour?

They don’t look like much but don’t be fooled.  Not once, not once I repeat, have I ever had any leftovers when it comes to this recipe !

Mutton Stew and Frascati Wine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PART I

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

 

PART II – Adding Basic Vegetables for Taste

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

 

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

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

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

PART IV – Make Mash Potato Italian Style

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

PART V – Combining the Foods

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

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

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

PART VI – GRAND FINALE

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

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

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

 

Soufflé Olé

Below you can read a post I wrote about soufflé making on my previous blog (My Home Food That’s Amore). I wrote the post almost seven years ago but nothing has changed in the way I make it.  I continue to like its relative simplicity and everyone seems to like it.

The Suave Soufflé: Food that gets Blown into Deliciousness

The poor soufflé is saddled with a bad reputation for being difficult to make.  I would say that a superb soufflé might be arduous to produce but that an ordinary, jolly good one is easy peasy and should definitely be included in the midweek supper menu, especially when the weather starts sending out signals of nippiness.  Alan Davidson in the Oxford Compantion to Food [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 1999 (p. 735), gives us the following historical vital statistics on the soufflé:

Souffle – A French word which literally means “puffed up,” is a culinary term in both French and English (and used in many other languages) for a light, frothy dish, just stiff enough to hold its shape, and which may be savory or sweet, hot or cold.The basic hot souffle has as its starting point a roux–a cooked mixture of flour and butter…This type of souffle was a French invention of the late 18th century. Beauvilliers was making souffles possibly as early as 1782 (though he did not publish his L’Art du cusinier until 1814).

Recipes for various kinds appear in Louis Ude’s The French Cook of 1813, a work which promises a “new method of giving good and extremely cheap fashionable suppers at routs and soirees. Later, in 1841, Careme’s Patissier Royal Parisien goes into great detail on the technique of making souffles, from which it is clear that cooks had been having much trouble with souffles that collapsed. The dish acquired a reputation for difficulty and proneness to accidents which it does not really deserve…There are some Ukranian and Russian dishes of the hot souffle type, independently evolved and slightly different in composition.”

I owe my basic soufflé recipe to Delia Smith and have always found it to be very reliable (thank you Delia!).  The BEST thing about a soufflé is that you can prepare most of it, if need be, the day before — which is an excellent idea for when you are having people over to dinner.  The mixture can be doled out into individual ramekins instead of a single oven dish and that makes it quicker to serve too, as well as making the presentation an engaging one.   You can add all sorts of puréed vegetables or other ingredients to the basic soufflé mix and chime in with whatever is in season: squash, courgettes, artichokes and mushrooms for instance.

This is going to be quite a long post, be warned.  But once mastered, the steps prove to be very intuitive and easily remembered.

Here are the ingredients: 6 eggs, 200g cheese, 300ml milk, 50g butter, 50g flour, a pinch of cayenne pepper, a pinch of mustard powder, a twist of freshly grated nutmeg (not shown in the photo) and salt and pepper.  This will be enough to feed 6-8 people.  If, instead, there are going to be 3-4 to dinner, and there is plenty of other food on the menu, then use half of these recommended doses.  Regarding what cheese to use: use a mixture of cheeses if you like, why not, and bear in mind cheddar, emmenthal, gruyère, fontina and parmesan.

The first thing to do is turn the oven on, at 190°C and then grease your ramekins or soufflé dish with butter.  Set aside. (PS – the oven setting should NOT be convection – the air blowing around the oven would not be hepful for soufflés.)

Then, start the recipe by cracking the eggs and separating the yolks from the whites in different bowls.  Place the bowl containing the egg whites in the fridge — this will make it easier to whisk them later on.

Place the flour, butter, cayenne pepper and mustard powder in a saucepan.  Arm yourself with a whisk and a wooden spoon, you are going to need them.

Switch on the heat and very soon it will start looking like this … use the whisk to mix all the ingredients and cook for about 1 minute (or less).

Now add the milk.  A little at a time, using one hand, and whisking away with the other hand.  It might look ‘lumpy’ at first, but don’t worry.  Keep whisking and it will all meld beautifully.

See?  Now is the time to switch to the wooden spoon.

Stir away to cook the mixture (roux) for about 2 minutes.  Add salt and pepper.

Now add the cheese.  Ahem … what you see in the photo is not quite ‘proper’.  The proper thing to do is to grate the cheese first — but I was in a hurry that evening.  No matter.  The cheese did melt eventually, it just took longer that’s all.

Here is the proof that the cubes of cheese did melt!  Now switch off the heat.

Beat the egg yolks well with a fork or whisk and add them a little at a time to the roux. In order for the egg yolks to combine perfectly with the roux, it is a good idea to add them one at a time.  That is the ‘proper’ thing to do.  Ahem … I wasn’t in a ‘proper’ mood that evening, evidently, and added the beaten egg yolks all together.

But I did stir away with great vigour and zest with my trusty wooden spoon!

All combined and golden and gleaming.  I call this the end of “Phase I”.

Phase II:

Take the bowl containing the egg whites out of the fridge and get hold of your electric beater.  You could try whisking them by hand … you could … but I wouldn’t advise it, too much elbow work unless you are an expert at it.

Add a pinch of salt to the egg whites and then whisk away until you get the cloudy, foamy, frothy peaks that are going to put the souffle into your soufflé!

And here we are, ready to combine the two.

Start by putting a large spoonful of the beaten egg whites into the golden roux and mixing well.  This will loosen it up a little.

Then mix the whole lot together — but very gently! you don’t want the bubbles of air that make the egg whites stiff to lose their fluffiness.  When combining, remember to stir the spatula or wooden spoon (whatever you prefer) in a downward-to-upward movement as opposed to a round-and-round movement.  This protects those precious bubbles of air.

Then pour the mixture into the butter-greased soufflé bowl – in this case it was an oval pyrex dish, very 1970s!

Give it one final gentle stir.

The ‘proper’ temperature for cooking the soufflé is, apparently, 180°C — but experience has taught me that on my oven at least, the closer the temperature is to 200°C the better.  Every oven is quirky in its own way, so the best advice I can give you is to try it at 190°C (I’m very good at compromise).

Cook until ready.  How often have I read that in a recipe and been very irritated with the recipe writer for not being more specific!  All I can say is that, again, depending on the temperamental quirkiness of your own oven, this soufflé can take any time between 25 and  35 minutes.  Since it is considered the height of tabu to open the oven door while the soufflé is cooking — I would advise that you opt for a sensible 30 minute cooking time.

Here is the soufflé served with spinach.

Here is another soufflé I made in another pyrex dish.

Served with salad that time …

And that is the end of Soufflé Story for today except for one super time-saving and mood-enhancing tip, and that is that most of the soufflé can be prepared the day before!  Yes! And that is very good news if you are having people over to dinner and want to spend more time talking with them than you do preparing food in the kitchen (that’s what I meant by mood enhancing).  On Day 1, follow the instructions all the way to Phase I.  Then put everything in the fridge, covering both the egg-white bowl and the roux with clingfilm/saran wrap/plastic food wrapping.  On Day 2, take the roux out of the fridge at least one hour before cooking time (it has to be at room temperature, in other words).  Proceed with Phase II.  Don’t I deserve a medal for telling you that? I think I do!

POST SCRIPTUM – SOUFFLE WITH SQUASH

The idea was to add pumpkin to my cheese soufflé.  I poached the pumpkin in milk, adding garlic and sage leaves too.

I also added some olive oil and a strange salt I picked up, made with maple syrup.  Use ordinary salt by all means!  Those little beads scattered on the pumpkin are coriander — about one teaspoon.Once the squash was cooked, I mashed it up with a wooden spoon first …And then passed it through a food mill to get the texture I was after — a very smooth one.  I tasted it again and then added a bit more salt and pepper.  I was cooking 10 ramekins and so added 10 spoons of this pumpkin puré to the soufflé roux at the end of Phase I.

Previously I had placed fairly thin slices of the pumpkin in the oven, and cooked them for 15 minutes.  I also cut up some pancetta and cooked that until crispy.  When the ramekins of soufflé came out of the oven, I placed the slices of pumpkin and the pancetta on top of each one.  I was going to garnish the ramekins with fresh sage leaves but my friend Diane had the brilliant idea of  coating them with flour and cooking them quickly in olive oil for an added dash of both taste and texture, as well as presentation.

This photo gives you an idea.  If you look closely, you can see the pancetta, the slices of oven-cooked slices of squash and the sage leaves.  All in all, a very nice autumnal soufflé!

A Flash in the Pan but not a Flashy Fish Recipe

Sometimes it is easy to forget how a handful of readily available ingredients are all that it takes to make a simple fish taste so good.

1

This couple of ‘orata’ (sea bream) were caught from near Civitavecchia, or so the fishmonger told me as he gutted them and removed their scales.  One orata for me, one for hubby, they weighed about 700 g each.  When I got home, I rinsed them again in running water, and patted them dry.

2

I put some flour aside for coating them later on.

3In the saucepan to start with: olive oil, butter and some sweet paprika.

4Once the heat was turned on, I added some garlic, minced parsely and about a teaspoonful of coriander.

5After flouring the fish on both sides, I lay them gently into the bubbling olive oil and butter.

6I did my best to turn them over without removing any of the skin, but as you can see, I wasn’t entirely successful.

8I had some white wine on standby.

7Once I deemed the fish to be cooked, I placed them over a bed of plain peas seasoned with a little bit of butter and salt.

9I poured some wine into the saucepan, turned the heat up in order to let the alcohol evaporate, and then poured whatever lovely juices remained through a sieve all over the fish.

10On the table and ready to be served.  Doesn’t look like much, and yet is was so satisfying (all that butter folks! and the nuance of paprika and coriander) and very pleasant to eat.

11Also on the menu was saltwort which had been blanched first and then cooked through in another saucepan which was waiting for it with crispy guanciale (pork jowl) and all that that entailed.  It’s the first time I served ‘barba di frate’ or ‘agretti’ as saltwort is called in Italian this way.  I know it won’t be the last.

I think it took me less than 20 minutes to make this dinner.