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.

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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?

 

Kale Crostini by Stefania Barzini

For all you kale lovers, and I know that there are plenty of you! Here is a recipe that is heartily delicious to enjoy and really simple to make.  All it requires is top notch ingredients, including proper good olive oil and ‘lardo’, i.e. slices of cured lard.  If you are vegetarian you will eschew the latter naturally; if you cannot find lardo, a good substitute would be streaky bacon.  For those of you who are about to celebrate Thanksgiving, you are still in time to think about making these to serve as pre-dinner snacks.  They are tasty enough to satisfy an encroaching hunger pang and light enough not to ruin one’s appetite.

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Here are some kale crostini I made last September.

I learned to make them from Stefania Barzini.  Let me tell you a little about her below.  If you are in too much of a hurry or are not interested, by all means go straight to the recipe further down.

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What I love about Stefania Barzini is that she not only knows a lot about food and its history, she really – but really really – likes to cook, it’s a passion we share.  Contentedess beams out of her as she goes about her cooking; and she is also very calm and collected, not a nervous kind of cook.  And not just Italian food, but French too (she is practically bilingual in French) and a bit of Greek, and a bit of Middle Eastern.  When her husband who is in the film business worked in California for a few years, Stefania hooked up with the Italian Culinary Institute in Los Angeles and taught classes there but she also learned plenty about American food.  Only a few weeks ago she was giving one of her themed dinners on Cajun food, for instance, and will be hosting a proper Thanksgiving dinner with all the frills in Milan tomorrow, after having hosted another one in Rome last week.  One of the soirées  I attended at her house earlier this year (don’t you just love the word ‘soirée’,? Humour me, I am in a soignée mood today)  was in honour of Honoré de Balzac and she had arranged for one of the guests to read out passages about him or from his books as we enjoyed the meal (including apricot stuffed goose if you want to know).  I would hate to give the impression that this was a blue stocking affair … good grief no, there was plenty of banter and requisite laughter to colour and highlight the evening.

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Here is a not-very-good photo of the goose and apricot stuffing.

Goodness knows who/what I was in a previous lifetime or why I am particularly taken by the idea of good conversation in a salon à la Mme de Stael, but to me good food, fine wines, and refined and witty talk, not to mention a bit of good-natured gossip, come pretty to close to heaven on earth.    It explains why I love socialising at dinner parties and prefer them, on the whole,  to going out to eat at a restaurant for this purpose.  People behave differently in a home, they try harder I suppose?  Or are more grateful? Or can relax more?  Whatever.  Vive dinner parties! and may we never see their demise despite what glossy magazines have been writing on the subject for many years now.  I beg your pardon? Expensive? Yes, true, dinner parties can be expensive.  Yet I have pulled off very decent and enjoyable dinners with the cheapest and humblest of ingredients: pasta, rice, chicken, potatoes, some kind of veg and fruit salad.  It all depends on how you present your food and hospitality, or so I like to think.

So, yes, a little more about Stefania.  I can’t remember how I stumbled upon her but I think it was because I read her book “Fornelli d’Italia” on the beach two summers ago and found it not only well researched and written but also very necessary in this age of cookery obsession; she looks into how women bolstered and made their way in kitchens from 1861 onwards, i.e. since the creation of modern Italy, herding together a historical timeline, fact and anecdote as well as recipes.  I suppose I might have chased her up on facebook and she befriended me straight away.  Stefania has opinions and she likes, and is not afraid, to express them, not a few of which are guaranteed to raise people’s political or civil behaviour hackles.  I doff my hat to her outspokenness and insouciance of others’ opinion because it takes guts and moral high ground to bang on the way she does and have such an open mind at the same time.  I first  met her in person when Rachel Roddy asked me whether my husband and I might fancy attending a Sicilian food dinner that Stefania was giving, together with Fabrizia Lanza, using the fantastic island products of the Tasca Lanza farm.  Rachel herself has taught there, at the farm (https://racheleats.wordpress.com/2015/09/21/cook-the-farm/).

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Stefania greeted us warmly at the door, told us where to hang our coats and then made off to the kitchen to get on with the work, and basically that’s all I saw of her for the rest of the evening – her home was buzzing with people, enjoying this stand-up dinner.

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Stefania is nothing but hands-on about the whole meal preparation business and does not shirk from the hard work involved.  It leaves her exhausted afterwards but she has now come to expect that.  On one of these occasions, she carried on stoically despite a dreadful chest infection that had her enduring the evening with a high fever; the good thing was that it made her give up smoking.

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This is a photo at the end of the evening, wiped out but still looking minimal-chic/maxi pearls glamorous.

Stefania was part of the spearheading team that built up the Gambero Rosso TV food and wine channel in Italy.  I don’t know when she began her own website: http://www.follecasseruola.com/.  She has written several books as well as articles for magazines.  And she loves to teach!  She taught Itailan cooking classes, with her trusty friend Paola, last Spring in New York City, Miami and Los Angeles.  She confided that at the end of one cooking lesson she noticed she had lost a precious ring and realized that it had been accidentally thrown in the rubbish bin outside the workspace.  Please forgive what I realize is an annoying habit of forgetting important narrative details but right now I shall just cut to the chase.  The long and the short of it is that in an attempt to climb through a window to reach out to the rubbish bin, she ended up finding herself uncomfortably wedged there.  The good news is that she was able to retrieve her ring and was finally able to dislodge herself out of this tight and claustrophobic position but not before a long and scary struggle.  How did  you cope? I asked.  (I personally would have had a panic attack – but then maybe I wouldn’t have braved the window the way she did.)  She said that all she could do was laugh, her laughter helped her out of this fix, literally.  So … there you go, that’s Stefania for you.  Always chic even when the situation isn’t.  She also teaches Italian food history at one of the American universities in Rome.  A lover of nature and an inveterate traveller, she is a doting grandmother and one of those people who, I think, will never get ‘old’, her spirit and sense of adventure simply won’t allow it.

Thus, it was not totally unnatural that I should have turned to Stefania when I came across another spirited Italian lady, a spritely ‘young’ lady of almost 100 years of age.

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I asked Stefania if we could meet one day to discuss whether we might go down to Naples to interview her.  Her name was (yes, sadly she died last May) Marinella Peppa de Penta.  Again, I had ‘stumbled’ upon her, have no recollection how, and most probably over the internet in search of a recipe.  This wonderful lady who had recipes in her family that date back to the 17th century, obviously a family of some social standing, decided it would be a crying shame not to make them known to younger generations and so learned how to make videos of herself preparing them and posting them on Youtube (there is also a facebook page called “Fan di Marinella Penta de Peppo”).  For all her charm and coquettishness, Marinella’s video presence clearly implied that she would brook no nonsense and lived according to adamantine standards, and I fell for her hook, line and sinker.  Such a lover of life, such a generous teacher, such an upholder of culinary troves that might otherwise be lost! I could only look on admiringly as she went about her cooking in a tiny kitchen, dripping in jewellery, standing easily in heels, eye-catching attire and painted nails, imparting tips and secrets, and holding forth on good manners, all the while making sure she wasn’t cutting into the programme’s time.

One of the things I have learned from her is how to serve coffee.  She scoffed at the idea of letting guests serve themselves to coffee after a meal.  No, no, no!  The hostess must serve the coffee cup to the guest herself, one at a time, that’s how it’s done.  I was explaining all this to my forbearing husband and told him from now on that it would no longer suffice for him to make coffee for me in the morning if he knew what was good for him; he would have to serve me the coffee cup as well –  “Marinella Penta de Peppa says so and she should know!”.  Even if you don’t speak Italian, do click on the following link to get an idea of how wonderful she was; the recipe is a chicken alla cacciatora Neapolitan style: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RUsklFX5l1w.

The world that is interested in Italian culture via its food and recipes needs ambassadors (although really they are all ambassadresses) like the late Marcella Hazan and Marinella Peppa de Penta. It needs people like Anna del Conte.  Stefania Barzini does not write in English, more is the pity.  I reckon more people need to hear about her outside of Italy.

And now for the kale crostini recipe.

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Stefania Barzini taught this recipe in the course of a workshop I attended for food writers and photographers at a breathtakingly beautiful venue called Casamora, in Tuscany, last June.  Casamora is a farm near Pian di Sciò, in the Valdarno region (http://www.casamora.it/eng/fattoria.html), and the owners of the estate, who are friends of Stefania’s, put her at the helm of the cooking classes.

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Here are Stefania and friend/assistant Paola trimming the kale (please notice earrings and bangles). 

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Once the kale has been trimmed, it has to be washed, obviously.  Grimy kale doth not a good crostino make.  After that, all it takes is to cook some garlic and a little bit of chilli in a puddle of olive oil.  Once it has turned golden, add the kale.  It will hiss and spit, so be careful.  Let it cook for about five minutes then add a good splosh of white wine, season, cover with a lid and cook until the kale has become tender. That might take about 40 minutes altogether, it will depend on the amount and quality of kale.

6789While that is going on … turn the oven on and toast the slices of bread that make up the crostini.

10Once the kale is ‘done’, you have to mash it up.

11Use a food processor or a mouli-type food mill.

12Time to season the kale with a little more salt and pepper too this time, and with heaps of dribbles of excellent olive oil.  This Casamora olive oil won the gold prize at this year’s Los Angeles Extra Virgin Olive Oil Awards.  What can I say ?

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Time to assemble !

15Spoon a layer of the kale over each slice of toasted bread.

14Here are the slices of the Lardo di Colonnata.

16Deftly pick at the lardo (it’s very sticky) and place a slice over the kale.

17Into a hot oven they go … for just the right amount of time it takes for the lardo to melt.

18And now they are ready to eat.

19And now enjoy – eat them while they’re hot!