Friday, December 30, 2011

Armed and ready for the New Year

I’ve got a rusted old horse shoe hanging outside the front door. There’s a huge pot of lentils simmering on the stove. The cotechino is already cooked and waiting in the fridge. There are three large bunches of wrinkled prune-like grapes (passito), the remnants of September’s harvest, hanging in the cellar. They should be super sweet. I’m walking around in red underwear with an extra-heavy bunch of change dangling in my pockets. There’s mistletoe hanging in practically every room of the house (not that I’ll be doing a lot of kissing because women are strictly out-of-bounds for the duration of the evening). And I’ve got a bunch of crap (an old and worn non-stick pan, a broken chair and a cracked mug) sitting in a pile waiting to go out the window at the stroke of midnight! All the shutters are down and now all I need to do is find a bloody hunchback… emmm… that’s going to be a tough one.

Italians take their superstitions seriously. And it’s contagious. The problem is there’s very little agreement between the regions as to what constitutes good luck and bad. We all seem to agree on lentils though. Eating lentils on New Year’s Eve with cotechino [a large sausage], Italians believe, will bring good fortune – of the financial kind. Down the road in Bologna and Modena they eat zampone [pigs trotter], which is shaped like a purse, with their lentils.

The grapes I’ve been saving especially for the occasion also symbolise good luck. As the saying goes: “chi mangia l'uva per Capodanno, conta i quattrini tutto l'anno". “whoever eats grapes at New Year, counts the money/coins all year round”. I’ve got a lot of grapes so I bought a calculator just for the occasion. On the subject of food, raisins and jars of dates and dried figs covered in honey are also supposed to bring a smile to your bank manager’s face over the year. I’ve got little bowls of raisins in the hallway, upstairs and down, a nibble for anyone passing – might as well spread the luck. I’m going to eat a bowl of honey-covered dates and figs with chocolate sauce and cream after dinner.

I’m going out for dinner – for the traditional New Year’s Eve cenone [literally Big Supper]. Luckily I don’t live in Naples so I’m going to leave the crash helmet at home. The Neapolitans believe that throwing old furniture - TV’s, fridges, pots, pans and the like – literally out the window will make room for what’s to come. It’s a prohibited practice these days but in Naples it’s best to be careful, just in case. I’ve really filled my pockets with loose change because it is supposed to multiply over the year. As for the red underwear, they say it wards off the Evil Eye. If you’re recently married, give your partner a pair – they will also bring prosperity and fertility!

It’s a quiet neighbourhood and the restaurant is just around the corner but just to be sure I’m going to wear a pair of blinkers. After all, I wouldn’t want to spot any priests, grave diggers or doctors on the sprint home. I don’t know any grave diggers but doctors and priests are a sure sign of bad fortune (of the worse kind) to come! On the other hand, if I happen to spot a hunchback or a white horse, I’m sure to be in for a bit of luck. As for women, the jury’s out on that one – they say the year could go either way. I’m not taking any chances. I’m going to have a boy’s night out!

Thanks everyone for your support this year and for taking an interest. Let’s hope the next year is full of good luck and fortune for everyone. Happy New Year!!! Felice Anno Nuovo!!!  

P.S. If you know any male hunchbacks living in my area, please let me know.

P.P.S. If anyone needs a loan, feel free to ask. I’m feeling especially generous [not to mention, they say anything loaned on New Year’s Eve will be returned a hundredfold over the coming year].
Buon Anno.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Spending time in the kitchen

This Christmas I made anolini in brodo (stuffed pasta cooked in broth) along with fresh tortelli with a chestnut stuffing finished in butter and fresh sage. The mains included a traditional bollito misto (a dish of mixed boiled meats used to make the broth for the pasta) followed by faraona alla creta (stuffed guinea fowl baked in a clay mould). One of my young sons [the creative one] did the sculpture-work. The other [the destructive one] wielded the hammer over the table. Luckily everyone managed to avoid the shrapnel and the bird was perfectly cooked, juicy and tender. We finished with a chocolate zucotto followed by a traditional panettone made by the local artisan baker. It was a great meal, simple yet fitting the occasion. All in all, I estimate I spent approximately 4.5 hours in the kitchen. I can’t really complain as most of that time was spent watching the meat boil. That said, I’ve been invited to my neighbours for Boxing Day and I’m eating out on New Year’s Eve!        

My Christmas efforts were average (time-wise, that is!). A recent survey found that 42% of Italian households spent between three and five hours preparing Christmas dinner. It’s a figure that pales in comparison to the 12% of households that spent over eight hours! Only 6% managed to get dinner on the table in under an hour (how they did that is anyone’s guess). The remainder (40 per cent), spent somewhere between one and three hours. Nine out of ten Italians had lunch with family.

We all spend more time in the kitchen over the Christmas holidays. Yet I wonder just how much more time the average Italian spends in the kitchen compared to any other Sunday lunch throughout the year? Why do I say this? I say so because I know that what my local neighbours ate on Christmas hardly bears a difference to what they eat practically every Sunday. The anolini in broth and the mixed boiled meats are so commonplace in this area they are a given. And a roast of some sort almost always follows. Of course everyone enjoys a little extravagance over Christmas – perhaps a few slices of the finest culatello, maybe a shaving of truffle over fresh pasta and, for those with a sweet tooth, the occasional extra dessert. But we have a machine at home for slicing the ham and as far as dessert is concerned, as often as not, that merely entails a walk to the local pasticceria. I know because it’s a small town.

My point is this. Italy is still a nation of home cooks that live [or is it love?] to cook. Whilst the five-minute polenta flour and boil-in-the-bag cotechino sausages might have taken some of the sting out of cooking, Italians still spend a significant amount of their time in the kitchen. Ready-made-meals and pre-prepared vegetables in the supermarket are noticeable by their absence. So if you want to eat here, there is no alternative but to put in the effort. That said, I’m still going out New Year’s Eve!    

Thursday, December 22, 2011

An Italian Christmas for the Italians

Italians are patriotic when it comes to shopping. And this is never truer than at Christmas. According to a recent survey, Italians will spend 2.2 billion on ‘Made in Italy’ products over the festive holidays. They’re looking for value for money, eschewing anything that’s out-of-season (peaches and cherries etc), opting instead for home grown and local. A whopping 73% said that they would only buy products ‘made in Italy’, a level of patriotism which is much higher than the European average of 60%.

Most Italians intend to give food as gifts for Christmas. Among the top contenders are Christmas sweets, torrone [nougat] and chocolates, Tuscan panforte and cantucci biscuits, pandolce from Liguria, panettone, struffoli from Campania and Puglia and various salumi or cured meat products made throughout the country. Specialty pastas, lentils and beans also feature high on the national gift list. Of those surveyed, 33% intend to buy local and 28% organic.

The gift of food, for Italians, is considered the greatest gesture one can make. Over the summer, Italians fortunate enough to own a large vegetable garden will gladly pick a few extra tomatoes for their neighbour every time they venture into the garden for the ingredients for a salad. So too, an excess of mushrooms, truffles or any wild food gathered is almost always shared with friends and family. The gift of food is always appreciated and it never gets old.

Why? Because the appreciation of food in Italian culture still stems from a time when food was scarce. The hard times, or cucina povera of old, is still engrained in the national psyche. And it wasn’t so long ago. The older generation in Italy is still young enough to remember times when food wasn’t readily available – and it’s a lesson that’s passed from one generation to the next. The frugality of the times was such that festive occasions such as Christmas became heightened in importance. The weeks, even months, in the run up to Christmas was a time of sacrifice. Eggs would be stored to make pasta, chestnuts and mushrooms would be dried and a good salami would be hung specially for the occasion. These were not foodstuffs that were eaten on a regular basis. Any surplus would have been sold to buy sugar for something sweet on the day.

Of course, there’s another angle to the Italian appreciation of food as a gift. It’s one steeped in religious tradition. The Italian Christmas begins on Christmas Eve and carries through to the Epiphany on the 6th of January. Gifts of food given in the days before Christmas are intended to last throughout the festive season. They are not exclusively intended for Christmas day. Again, this in part reflects a culture that left nothing to waste and understood the importance of making things last. It’s no coincidence that many dishes made over the festive season are dishes that are made to last – panforte, tortelli, panettone, spongata, the various cured meat products, to name just a few – and will be enjoyed throughout the two weeks of Christmas.

Christmas in Italy is very different from Christmas in most other countries I’ve spent time in. Although modernity has taken its toll, with an element of commercialism creeping in, it certainly hasn’t changed the fundamental character of the festive season. Personally I’m not complaining. There’s something quite comforting about going back to basics. These days I’ve come to expect the inevitable knock on the door followed by a panettone and a bottle of something homemade. I’m guilty myself – this year I have a surplus of dried mushrooms packed into pretty jars, homemade apricot and cherry jams, as well as some great biscuits. It beats socks and soap any day of the week!  

Monday, December 19, 2011

Fish and chips and La Vigilia

Traditions die hard in Italy, particularly food traditions. That’s why most Italians will tell you that on Christmas Eve, known here as La Vigilia, they will eat ‘magro’ or ‘lean’. Don’t let that fool you. To interpret this as ‘light’ is completely mistaken! Since when have you heard of Italians eating light?  Rather, it just means no meat – of course, they compensate with extra vegetables and plenty of fish. 

The number of courses served on Christmas Eve tends to be symbolic – seven for the seven sacraments, 12 for the disciples, 13 with the addition of Jesus. The type of fish you eat really depends on where in Italy you happen live. A firm favourite in the past was il capitone (eel), either fried or in umido.  However, tastes have changed somewhat and it’s probably fair to say that today the preferred choice of fish for most Italians is baccalà or merluzzo (salt cod).

I’ve no intention of attempting 13 courses, or 7 for that matter! But, being a huge fan of salt cod, I do love cooking for Christmas Eve. That might have something to do with the fact that my family was, for many years, in the fish-and-chip business in Belfast. This year, like every year, I’m cooking salt cod two different ways – one for the Irish in me (deep fried in batter) and one for the Italian (alla Napoletana). As my family originated just outside of Naples, I guess you could say that this is a real family combo for me! 

Salt cod Neapolitan-style
Baccalà alla Napoletana

Baccalà is sold everywhere in Italy in the run up to Christmas. It is important to buy it in advance as it needs to be soaked in water for a couple of days before cooking. It’s also important to remember to change the water several times a day. Baccalà alla napoletana is a hugely popular dish cooked not only in Campania but across the country (albeit often under a different name).  The addition of sultanas and pine nuts really lifts the dish and makes it something special and festive.

Serves 4-6 people
Preparation time: 15 minutes + soaking time for the fish
Cooking time: 30 minutes

1kg salted cod fillet (ready to use)
800g tinned chopped tomatoes
150g black olives
50g sultanas
25g pine nuts
1 tablespoon capers
2 cloves of garlic
Flour of dusting
A little olive oil
Salt and pepper

To make the sauce, in a deep-sided frying pan gently fry the two cloves of garlic in a few tablespoons of olive oil for a few minutes.  Next add the chopped tomatoes, olives, sultanas, pine nuts and capers.  Allow to simmer gently for 15 minutes and check for seasoning.  If necessary add salt and pepper.

Whilst the sauce is simmering take the fillet of prepared salt cod (see above) and cut into steaks of about 5cm wide.  Dust with seasoned flour and fry in a separate frying pan with a few tablespoons of olive oil until golden on the outside.  You can do this in batches.

Once all the cod has been fried, place into the pan with the sauce, cover and continue gently simmering for 25-30 minutes until the cod is cooked all the way through. Serve immediately over polenta or with crusty bread.

Deep fried salt cod
Merluzzo fritto

Serves 4-6
Preparation time: 15 minutes + soaking time for the fish
Cooking time: 15 minutes

1kg salted cod fillet (ready to use) cut into large pieces
Vegetable oil for frying
150g plain flour
75g corn flour
Good pinch sugar

Mix together all the ingredients for the batter with 225ml chilled water and 1tsp of salt and leave to rest for about 30 minutes.
Heat the oil to about 180ºC. Dip the cod pieces into seasoned flour to coat and then dip into the batter. Allow excess batter to drip off. Then fry in hot oil until golden and crisp, and cooked through in the centre.
Cook the fish in batches, drain on kitchen paper and keep hot in the oven while you cook the rest. When all the fish is cooked, sprinkle with salt and serve with lemon wedges or vinegar and oven baked chips.

Reinforcing salad
Insalata di Rinforzo

Insalata di Rinforzo hails from the Campania region in the south. Its name means to reinforce the appetite! Full of strong flavours typically of region, this dish will evoke memories for anyone who has ever visited Naples or the surrounding region. For me, this is one of those clever Italian dishes that feeds more than just the appetite. Both in the making and in the eating, the preserved vegetables bring back an all but distant memory of warmer summer days – a perfect tonic on a cold winter’s evening. For many people across the country, the preparation of the dish will have started on a hot July or August day when vegetables were being harvested and preserved fresh from the fields.

Strictly speaking, the peppers used are generally jarred and preserved in vinegar. However, along with the pickled cornicions, capers and salted anchovies, I find this over-powering and prefer instead to inject a little mild sweetness, which you can get by roasting the peppers. It’s just a question of taste because ultimately this is a great dish as it’s versatile, there are no hard-and-fast rules, it can be prepared well in advance and if you see it’s running low, you simply top it up!  What’s more, serve the salad on a large platter, put your feet up and let the guests help themselves.

Serves 6-8
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 10 minutes

1 cauliflower
3 red/yellow peppers
150g cornicions
200g black olives
150g large pickled onions
80g salted anchovies
4 free-range eggs
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Put the peppers on a baking tray and place in a pre-heated hot oven for about 15 minutes, or until the skins are blackened. Remove and place in a covered bowl and cool. Once cooled, peel the peppers and slice into strips. Set aside.

Break the cauliflower into florets and boil in salted water until tender, but still retaining a bite.  Set aside to cool.  In the meantime, boil the eggs for around 8 minutes until hard-boiled, then peel off the shell and set aside to cool.

To finish the dish, arrange the cauliflower on a large serving plate. Distribute the roasted peppers over the cauliflower and then the remaining ingredients. Finish off with the hard boiled eggs sliced in half. 

To make the dressing, simply whisk together the oil and vinegar, and season generously.  Pour the dressing into a serving jug and allow guests to dress their own salad to taste.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Dolce Natale - Sweet Christmas

With Christmas just around the corner, it’s time to get serious about the menu. And a good place to start is with desserts. For most of the year Italians buy or eat their desserts at the pastry shop or in the café. Christmas is one of the exceptions to the rule. Luckily, however, as most Italian Christmas cakes keep well they can be made in advance taking at least some of the stress out of the day! Here’s two recipes you might like to try that are very popular and quick and simple to make. Incidentally, both recipes also make great gifts!

Ferrara’s famous cake, the pampetato, was first mentioned in a document dating back to 1465. It is believed that the original recipe was created by the famous renaissance chef, Cristoforo da Messisbugo as a tribute to the Pope. It was, at the time, known as Pan del Papa (Bread of the Pope). Over time the name changed but the essence of the cake has remained the same.

Despite its name, pampetato is not ‘peppered’ or ‘spicy’, unlike many of Italy’s Christmas desserts.  It is, however, a rich fruit and nut-based cake covered in chocolate and in its final form has been likened to a small pumpkin. It is still very much associated with the city of Ferrara and over the Christmas period bakery windows are filled with wonderful displays of their favourite cake. 

Spiced chocolate cake

Serves 6-8
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 20 minutes

200g plain flour
100g blanched almonds
100g caster sugar
80g plain cocoa powder
100g candied fruit
Teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 finely ground cloves
120-150ml warm milk
100g plain chocolate

Place the flour in a large bowl and add all the other ingredients with the exception of the chocolate and the milk.  Stir together well.  When all the ingredients are well combined, add 100ml of warm milk and stir in.  Continue adding the milk a little at a time until a soft but firm dough is formed.  Work the dough a little with your hands to form a ball and then shape into a dome.  Place this on a baking sheet and bake in a preheated oven at 170ºC for 20 minutes.  Once cooked, remove from the oven and cool on a wire rack.  When completely cool, melt the plain chocolate in a double boiler and then drizzle all over the pampepato.  Allow the chocolate coating to set before serving.  This cake is very rich and dense, so it should be served in small slices!

Salame di cioccolato
The chocolate salami is something of a newcomer. It’s not strictly traditional but a more modern day invention. It’s still considered something of a novelty in Italian homes, especially for children, and its relative simplicity in the making, and the fact that it can be made well in advance and keeps well, has made it an increasingly popular dessert. It is eaten of course sliced, just like a salami, albeit not at the start of a meal! It is generally enjoyed along with coffee and liqueurs.

Salame di cioccolato
Chocolate salami

Serves 12
Preparation time: 10-15 minutes + chilling
Cooking time: N/A

150 – 180g dry biscuits
130g unsalted butter
100g caster sugar
75g plain cocoa powder
50g blanched almonds
2 egg yolks
1 shot of rum

Place the egg yolks and half the sugar in a large bowl and whisk with an electric beater until light and foamy.  Next, add the butter which has been melted and cooled, the cocoa powder, the rum and the rest of the sugar.  Beat again to mix everything together.  Finally, add the biscuits which have been roughly crushed and the almonds.  Stir together well.

Place a large sheet of greaseproof paper on the work surface and tip the mixture out onto the paper in the shape of a salami.  Fold the paper over the mixture and press down, compacting the mixture and at the same time trying to create an authentic salami shape.  When you’re happy with the final result, wrap the ends up well and place in the fridge for at least 3 hours before serving.  Before serving, if you roll the salami in icing sugar it really lends to an authentic salami look.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Cats, pasta and Garganelli

Every Italian food has to have a legend. A good story lends its own kind of flavour - colour, character and form. Sometimes the legends are just that – stories designed to entertain and feed the soul, as well as the appetite. Sometimes there are multiple stories - every small town in Italy, after all, has to lay claim to something. And sometimes they are grounded in something more concrete. The question is; how do you tell the difference?

Garganelli, the grooved quill-shaped pasta, is a case in point. They originated in Romagna, taking their name from the dialect word garganel, which is used to describe the cartilaginous rings around the trachea of a chicken.  They are made by rolling out squares of pasta around a pencil-like stick and then rolling the tubes over a wooden comb. This gives them their distinctive grooves.

There are a number of stories accounting for the birth of garganelli. One version has it that they appeared for the first time in 1725 in Imola in the home of the Cardinal of Aragon, Cornelio Bentivoglio, the Papal Legate of Romagna. A creative cook, so it’s claimed, had rolled out squares of pasta to make cappelleti (a stuffed ravioli-like pasta) for the Cardinal’s lunch. But when he discovered that the cat had ate the filling, he was forced to improvise. So he rolled the dough out with the tools he had at hand and served the quills in a capon broth. They were well received and the idea quickly spread to neighbouring wealthy families.

Another story attributes them to the cook of the court of Caterina Sforza (1463-1509), wife of Girolamo Riario, nephew of Pope Sixtus the IV, Lord of Forlì and Imola. Alternatively, it could be that their origins are more humble, originating in the local countryside. If so they would certainly have been reserved for Sundays and special occasions given the use of eggs and the fact that they can be quite time consuming to prepare.   

Making them by hand isn’t that difficult, if you have patience and a little time on your hands. It’s well worth the effort. However, the dried egg-pasta version sold in delis and some supermarkets are also well worth a try. As it happens, the first pasta making machine for making garganelli was invented by Edward Bacchini in 1984, a pasta maker from Romagna.

There are a number of ways for getting the best out of your garganelli. The typical classical versions from Romagna are to serve them with either a meat ragù or with a creamy sauce of peas and ham and a sprinkle of nutmeg. Prawns and courgettes in cream is also a popular combination. Ideally you want something with a sauce, the grooves in the garganelli designed for the very purpose of holding it. I’ve opted for a combination of prawns and peas. It’s a great combination. Just watch the cat doesn’t eat the prawns while you are waiting for the water to boil!    

Garganelli with Prawns and Peas in a creamy tomato sauce
Garganelli con gamberi e piselli in una salsa cremoso al pomodoro

Serves 4
Preparation time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 10 minutes

300g garganelli
250g large fresh prawns, cleaned
200g fresh peas
200ml tomato pasta sauce
100g mascarpone cheese

Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil and add the garganelli.  If you haven’t made them fresh, cook according to packet instructions.  Whilst the pasta is cooking warm the tomato sauce and stir in the mascarpone cheese.  In a separate pan boil the peas until just tender (about 3 minutes), drain and add to the tomato sauce.  In the meantime, cook the prawns in a large griddle pan for 2-3 minutes and then add to the tomato sauce also.  When the garganelli are cooked, drain (reserving a small ladleful of cooking water) and add to the saucepan with the sauce.  Toss everything together well, adding a little of the cooking water to loosen the sauce if necessary. Serve immediately.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Bargnolino – Sloe berries

Italians like to make their own liqueurs. From mid November little vans parked by the roadside sell crates of lemons from Sicily, Campania and Liguria. It’s a sure sign that it’s time to make the annual supply of limoncello. In June, 70-year-old Italians clamber up trees for fresh green walnuts to make a liqueur known as nocino. In the early summer they will take a trip to the forests for wild strawberries, in September it’s grape lees for making grappa and in late autumn, early winter it’s sloe berries that are the focus of attention.

Every region has its own particular after-dinner preferences. And every Italian thinks that they harbour the secret to the best liqueur in town. In that respect, I’m no different.  Through a process of trial and error I think I can make a bottle of limoncello that can compete with the very best. This weekend it was bargnolino that had me mixing and bottling into the small hours of the morning. The secret to bargnolino, however, is not in the method. The secret to good bargnolino is nerve. 

Bargnolino, an after-dinner digestive, is made from sloe berries which grow on spiny shrubs throughout the Tuscan-Emilian Apennine area. This drink is widely made at home and its popularity seems to be growing by the year. In Ivvacari, they hold a bargnolino competition which takes place during the salami festival. He (or she) who is judged to make the finest bargnolino is crowned King of the Sloe! I’m fixing to run next year.

The key to this liqueur is collecting the berries when they are just right. The season begins in October and can, in some years, run through as late as mid-December, depending on the weather. The colder it is, the sooner the berries will ripen. The optimum time is after the first heavy frost. The berries should be soft to the touch, to the point where they stain your hand as you collect them. Most give in to their impatience. They succumb to the fear that if they wait, there won’t be a kilo of sloe berries to be found anywhere within a 100km radius. And so they go picking long before the berries have reached their best. Like I said, it’s a question of nerve.

This year, the weather has been particularly mild. It didn’t rain throughout August and well into September. Throughout October and the first half of November the berries were smaller than usual and firm to the touch – not exactly what you are looking for. So (nerves of steel) I waited… and waited, well aware it could be too late. But, if willing to take it, it’s a risk that can really pay off. I picked 8 kilos of berries in a place high above Morfasso in the lower Apennines a couple of weeks back. They were soft to the touch, perfect for bargnolino. The hint of envy on the faces in the bar was clear for all to see. All that’s left is for the King of Bargnolino to collect his Crown!   

Here’s the standard recipe for you. Experiment and make it your own.

Makes approximately 2 litres

1kg of sloe berries
1 litre of pure alcohol (or strong vodka or a dry grappa)
500 ml of Italian red wine (a fizzy Guttornio if you can find it)
A generous ½ kilo of sugar


Lightly wash the berries discarding any debris such as stray twigs and leaves. Place the berries in a small demijohn (or a large glass jar with a lid) and cover with the alcohol. Seal the jar and place in a dark closet or under the stairs. Leave for 60 days, but remember to give the contents a good shake every 2 or 3 days.

After 60 days, strain the liquid through a muslin cloth and then add the wine and the sugar. Stir vigorously until the sugar has completely dissolved. The bargnolino can be bottled immediately. It is, however, best not to start drinking for about 30 days – just enough time for ‘the sugar to eat the alcohol’!

P.S. If you decide to give it a go, I’d advised taking a good pair of gloves as the shrubs are seriously thorny.

P. P.S. Keep the bottle in the freezer and serve ice cold in shot glasses after a meal.

Friday, December 9, 2011

A bowl of stew and a good book

In Italy, stew is always an occasion. That’s because, if you want to eat a good stew, there are no shortcuts – barring the lazy option, a visit to the local trattoria. Personally, when I get a hankering for stew – which I often do on a cold winter’s day – I make my own. There really is no substitute and although it may be time consuming, it’s hardly arduous. It’s a great Saturday afternoon dish. Brown a little meat, soften a few vegetables, add wine and stock and put your feet up with a good book and a glass of whatever’s left in the bottle. I got through the best part of a Lee Child novel the last time I made a stew.

Italians can be pedantic, particularly when it comes to matters of the stomach. Stracotto, brasato, umido, stufato, spezzatino, salmì, not to mention a very long list of regional and provincial variations, are just a few of the more common names given to describe what in the UK would simply be labelled ‘stew’ – i.e., a piece of meat, sometimes whole, sometimes cut into pieces and slow cooked for hours with various spices in a stock or wine or a mix of the two.

Stew in Italy is always specific. Spezzatino is arguably the term that most closely resembles what in the UK is commonly labelled ‘stew’. That is, meat cut into small pieces, browned and stewed with the addition of vegetables in a stock. This differs from a stufato, where the meat is marinated first in wine, garlic and various herbs and then slow cooked without browning for up to 8 hours. Game meats are often cooked this way. Alternatively, with a brasato, the meat is browned first and then cooked slowly in wine. A piece of meat which is rich in fat is most suited to the method. It’s most popular in Lombardy and Piedmont, the brasato al Barolo being the obvious example.

Umido refers to a slow cooking method where the lid is kept on, the desired result being a sauce that is still quite liquid, perfect for pouring over a heap of polenta or mashed potatoes. It’s a method commonly used for rabbit, hare and chicken. Alternatively, a stracotto - which is highly popular throughout central and northern Italy - is made with an uncut piece of meat, usually beef, but sometimes horse or game. The meat is browned before being cooked with tomatoes and stock. Cooking time can be anything from 4 to 8 hours to 2 days. Here in parts of Emilia a specialty is fresh egg pasta stuffed with stracotto. Not a dish to be making every day of the week, naturally, it’s generally reserved for special occasions.

Salmì is one of the oldest methods for cooking stews in Italy. It’s especially suited to game. The meat is marinated in wine along with vegetables and spices and cooked slowly in the marinade with the lid kept on. The method, they say, dates back to the 700s.

I got hooked on stew during my childhood in Belfast. The aroma of an Irish stew, cooked slowly in stout (or Guinness), has stayed with me all these years. Occasionally, when I’m hit with a bout of nostalgia, I’ll take a trip to the supermarket and buy a few bottles of Guinness, some neck of lamb and take to the kitchen. It always takes me back. Today though, it’s a spezzatino – beef, slow cooked in stock and tomatoes, with loads of potatoes added in the last hour to soak up the juices. I’ve got another Lee Child novel I’ve been meaning to read. All that’s left is to open a bottle of wine and get stewing!

Beef stew with potatoes
Spezzatino di manzo con patate

Serves 4

750g shoulder of beef (boned and cut into pieces with some of the fat trimmed off)
1 medium onion, chopped
1 clove garlic
1kg potatoes, peeled and cut into pieces
2x 400g tinned tomatoes
150ml beef stock
1 bay leaf
A handful fresh chopped flat leafed parsley
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon sugar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Put the chopped onion and garlic into a heavy large casserole dish with the oil and sauté gently until starting to brown ever so slightly. Remove the onions from the dish and set aside. Turn up the heat, add the meat and brown evenly. Return the onions to the pan along with the tomatoes, stock and bay leaf. Add the sugar and stir well. Bring to a very gentle simmer, season well with salt and pepper and cover the pot. Adjust the heat so that it is just simmering. Continue to cook for 2.5 hours, stirring occasionally. After this time, add the potatoes and give the stew a stir. Check to see there is still sufficient liquid. It should just cover the potatoes. If not, add a little extra stock. Continue cooking for another 40 to 45 minutes with the lid off. By this time the meat should be tender and the potatoes cooked through and beginning to break apart slightly. Allow to rest for 5 minutes, sprinkle over the chopped parsley and serve with plenty of crusty bread.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A question of Truffles

The first hour of a truffle hunt is the most difficult. It’s a frenzy of activity. Ciara, my young four-legged Laghotta Romagnola - an old Italian breed of truffle hunting dog - has seemingly boundless energy and it’s all I can do to keep up. You’ve got to stay within reaching distance of the dog. It’s a question of being close enough to read the signs.  Otherwise the dog can find a truffle and you won’t spot the signals. So you crash through the woods, looking for a path through dense bramble, legs burning, gasping for breath and wishing to God you hadn’t had that extra brioche at breakfast.

For some, truffles are big business. Every truffle hunter dreams of finding the ‘Big One’.  In late November 2007, Stanley Ho, a Macau casino owner, outbid British artist Damien Hirst at a charity auction to the sum of £165,000 for a magnificent 1.5 kilo (3.31lb) specimen. Of course, not all truffles fetch such exorbitant amounts. But they are big business nonetheless and for many years have been out of reach for all but those with the deepest pockets.  White truffles or the Alba truffle (Tuber magnatum) fetches up to €4,000 per kilo at the Fiera del Tartufo  (truffle fair) in Alba in Piedmonte on a good year.

Personally, I don’t hunt truffles for profit. Anything I find I eat or, if lucky enough to find a surplus, I give them to friends as gifts. I’m always popular at the local bar after a day’s truffle hunting!  Hunting truffles for profit, in my opinion, takes something away from the exercise. There’s a difference between hunting truffles to sell and doing it for the sheer thrill and pleasure of finding truffles. I know a number of truffle hunters who never eat what they find – which frankly I just can’t bring myself to understand.  

I learned how to hunt for truffles about 5 years back with my good friend Sandro Rizzi. A passionate mushroom picker with a love for both dogs and the boschi (woods), truffle hunting came naturally to me. And once I found my first truffle, I was hooked.

Truffles and mushrooms share common cultural characteristics in Italy. They are both pastimes cloaked in secrecy. Mushroom pickers seldom give away the location of their most prized picking grounds. When it comes to truffles, the secrets are even more stringently guarded. There have been many reports of old truffle hunters taking the secrets of their picking ground to the grave, unwilling even to share them with their own children. I was fortunate in that I found Sandro, a 50-year-old hunter who was willing to share more than just stories.

Today was a good day. We found black truffles, Tuber melanosporum, over a dozen, decent-sized, fresh and very pungent. I’m not going to mention where. But generally speaking, although truffles from Alba in Piedmont are considered the most highly prized, both white and black truffles can be found in the regions of Tuscany, Umbria (notably the tartufo di Norcia), Le Marche, Emilia Romagna and Lazio. I’ve had white truffles from Alba and I have eaten white truffles from Emilia Romagna and personally I have never been able to tell the difference. The fact that I found the latter myself might have something to do with it. Food you’ve personally foraged for and cooked is always going to taste better! Next week I’ll return to this subject with a few tips I’ve learned over the years for cooking with truffles.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Sbrisolona – The Italian Cookie

There’s something destructively satisfying about breaking into a sbrisolona at the end of a meal. It’s not a cake you can cut into neat slices but rather one that requires a sledgehammer. One of the symbols of Mantuan cuisine, sbrisolona can perhaps best be described as a cross between a crumble cake and an over-sized cookie. Yet, strictly speaking, it is neither.

The first written records of sbrisolona date back five centuries to the Gonzaga court in Mantua. However, it is likely that the recipe originated much further back, created originally as a country cake. This would seem evident from the main ingredients which included corn maize and lard, both ingredients associated at the time with cucina povera, or food of the poor. The cooks of the Gonzaga court were responsible for giving the basic recipe a makeover, enriching it with sugar, spices and almonds. In the country version, all three ingredients would have been beyond reach and if nuts were added, they would have been hazelnuts foraged locally.

Although it originated in the province of Mantua in Lombardy, versions of the cake were made throughout the Padana plains. It goes by various names – sbrisulona, sbrisolina, sbrisulusa, sbrisulada, to name a few. In the Piacentine dialect it’s custom to ask for a turta di sbrislon.

Although today there are variations on the recipe (my local baker, for example, makes a cholesterol-free version with olive oil instead of butter) the dominant characteristic of the dish is its brittleness, from which it takes its name – sbricolona or crumbled. Many years back I was politely reprimanded by my dinner guests when I went to cut into the cake with a knife. The proper etiquette, I was told, was to place the cake centre table and apply a well-placed, firm fist. It is generally eaten with coffee at the end of a meal or a glass of sweet white wine. In parts of the Veneto region, where it’s commonly known as ‘rosegotta’, I’ve had it served with grappa. My personal favourite, however, is as you would eat any cookie – with a tall, ice-cold glass of milk.


200g white flour,
200g fine cornmeal
200g chopped almonds,
200g sugar,
200g butter
2 egg yolks,
The rind of one lemon
1 vanilla pod

Mix the flours together along with the sugar, vanilla, lemon rind and chopped almonds. Bring the butter to room temperature. Chop and add along with the egg yolks. Mix everything together quickly with your fingertips until you have a crumbly/lumpy consistency (pretty much as you would have a crumble topping)

Pour the crumble mix into a buttered baking tin, pressing down gently and taking care not to squash down the lumps.  The baking tin should be large enough so that it forms a layer about 1 inch thick. Bake in a pre-heated oven (175 degrees) until brown. The cake should be golden and the almonds toasted.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Pazzo for Panettone!

For one month of the year Italians go crazy [pazzo] for panettone. If anything could be classified as a national festive cake, you need look no further. You know that Christmas is approaching in Italy when supermarkets replace autumnal displays of chestnuts, porcini mushrooms and pumpkins with pyramid-shaped mountains of boxed panettone cakes. Come the 15th of January, once the dregs have been cleared in the sales, you won’t find a panettone for love or money.

There are many legends which lay claim to the origin of panettone.  One of these dates its origin back to the 15th Century, when a Milanese nobleman Ughetto degli Atellani, fell in love with the daughter of a poor baker named Antonio.  To win her love, the nobleman disguised himself as a baker and invented this rich bread.  After having tasted the rich bread, the Duke of Milan, Ludovico il Moro Sforza, gave his permission to the marriage and the new cake-like bread gained popularity.  Another, much more simple explanation finds reference to a ‘Pan dei ton’ in the 1300s which translated means ‘luxury bread’ in Milanese dialect.

Today panettone has achieved a national popularity that is largely unparalleled. It’s a subject of considerable debate and speculation. Which brand/ or brands of panettone are you buying this year? Do you opt for an artisan panettone, made by hand, or a mass-produced industrial version made by the likes of Bauli, Motta, Tre Marie or one of the many supermarket-own brands? Do you go for a traditional panettone made with canditi (a mix of orange and lemon peel) or a version from Verona traditionally made without the candied fruit? Alternatively, do you opt for one of the many more recent adaptations made to placate modern tastes such as with chocolate or chocolate drops or chocolate cream or chocolate topping or vanilla cream or almond topping etc., etc., etc!!! You get the idea. The range is staggering and it’s no wonder that you can be left feeling a little bewildered and overwhelmed.

Italians are pragmatic when it comes to panettone. Two factors determine decision-making: cost and quality. The difficulty is that Italians will seldom ever buy just one panettone. It’s custom today to give them as gifts, so it doesn’t come as a surprise when someone arrives at the doorstep holding a boxed panettone in one hand, a bottle of spumante [sparkling wine] in the other. Buying just one panettone doesn’t happen – hence, I guess, the huge supermarket stockpile. Personally, I buy anywhere up to a dozen every year and my thinking goes like this. For gifts, I’ll buy a decent supermarket variety – how decent depends on the recipient. If the postman has delivered a particularly good service over the year, it will reflect in the brand. If the neighbours have been giving me trouble about my dog, it’s a supermarket own brand, I’m afraid. As for the house, there’s no consensus. My wife enjoys nothing better than a non-descript supermarket brand (€2.50), no thrills but excellent for dunking into a café latte in the morning. I like the rustic, traditional artisan version whereas the kids want chocolate. They say there’s no pleasing everybody, but at Christmas you have to try and make an exception.


Mini panettone

If you have the time, homemade panettone, in my view, always tastes better. They taste buttery and unctuous and you have the luxury of being able to incorporate the ingredients of your choice. The following recipe is based on the classic Milanese version. I have also included a variation – stuffed mini panettone. I’ve used a mascarpone and candied peel for the filling. You could, however, substitute with chocolate drops, chopped nuts, dried fruits or a combination of any of the above.

Makes: 6
Ingredients for basic panettone
6 mini panettone cases
380g plain flour
1/2 teaspoon of salt
12g fresh yeast
1/2 cup lukewarm milk
2 eggs
2 egg yolks
150g unsalted butter
65g candied peel
80g raisins or sultanas

To make the panettone, sift the flour and salt together in a bowl. Make a well in the centre and add the yeast which has been dissolved in the milk and the whole eggs.  Mix enough flour with the milk to make a thick batter and leave to 'sponge' in a warm place for 30 minutes.  Next, add the egg yolks, sugar and softened butter and knead for about 5 minutes until you have a soft, smooth and elastic dough.  Let rise for 1-2 hours until doubled in size.  Finally knock the dough down and gently knead in the sultanas and candied peel.  Divide the dough into 6 pieces and place into individual panettone cases and let rise until doubled in size.  This should take about 1 hour. 

Bake in a preheated oven at 170 C for 20 minutes and then cool on a wire rack.  Decorate with ribbon and serve.

As an alternative, you can fill the panettone with a mascarpone cream.

6 mini panettone (as above)
2 egg yolks
2 tablespoons of sugar
250g mascarpone cheese
50g candied peel
To make the filling, whisk the egg yolks with the sugar until thick and foamy.  Beat in the mascarpone cheese (leave the mascarpone out of the fridge for at least 30 minutes before using) and stir in the candied peel. Cut the tops of the panettone, scoop out a little of the filling and fill with the mascarpone cream. Place the lid back on, decorate and serve.

Customised Panettone

If you don’t have the time to make your own panettone, simply buy one at the supermarket and give it a rich makeover. It looks impressive and it tastes even better!

1 panettone (any supermarket variety will do)
2 egg yolks
2 heaped tablespoons caster sugar
250gm mascarpone
300gm chocolate grated
250ml double cream
Icing sugar for dusting

To customise your panettone, gently scoop out the middle of the panettone from the base with a knife. Make sure you leave enough around the edges so that the panettone keeps its shape. Crumble the insides into small pieces and set aside.

Beat the egg yolks with the sugar until you have a thick creamy consistency (about 2-3 minutes with an electric beater).Add the mascarpone (make sure it’s room temperature when you do so) and beat into the egg mixture. At this point, should you wish, add a shot of your favourite tipple. To finish the stuffing, fold in the crumbled panettone. Pack the mixture back into the shell and place on a large serving plate.

Gently heat the cream (making sure it does not boil) and then add grated chocolate. Stir until the chocolate is melted and pour over the panettone. You don’t need to be too precise, allow the sauce to drip decoratively down the sides. Allow to cool and then dust with icing sugar and decorate as you please.