Sunday, April 29, 2012

Under The Spaghetti Tree: Part I

As a child I used to believe that spaghetti grew on trees and that Marco Polo brought it to Italy from China. As we drove through the Italian countryside during our summer holidays, I remember the excitement in the backseat as my brother, sister and I searched for the first sighting of the supposedly ubiquitous spaghetti tree. My father, something of a practical joker, had something I’m sure to do with perpetuating the myth. I had visions of playing beneath a chandelier of spaghetti as my mother picked the choicest strands and threw them directly into a pot of boiling water. For obvious reasons, the proverbial tree proved illusive - we had to settle for olive groves - but it was great fun nonetheless!

The fact is, no one can say for certain where spaghetti originated or how long a history it has (maybe it does grow on trees!). Children today are more food savvy. My eldest son Massimo, who’s 8 now, knew almost immediately that I was pulling his leg when I resurrected the myth on a drive down to Naples last summer. He said: “Daddy you’re joking, right? Spaghetti doesn’t grow on trees, it comes from Barilla”. From the corner of my eye I did, however, catch my younger son Giuliano, sneaking an exploratory peek out the window.

Of course, the popular myth that Marco Polo brought it home from his travels was debunked many years ago (at about the same time someone also discounted the notion that it grows on trees). Since then, theories have abounded but the fact is that no one knows how long the history of spaghetti spans. Its origins are intertwined with the history of pasta which is lost in time. Part of the problem is one of terminology. The word ‘spaghetti’, if not the product, is of relatively recent origin. It was only in the early 1800s that it came into popular usage. The word most used in the Middle Ages, in generic fashion for all forms of pasta, was maccheroni – spelt in as many different ways probably as it was cooked. The earliest record found thus far of the word spaghetti is in a dictionary of Italian dialect, coincidentally here in my home province of Piacenza, which was published in 1836. It wasn’t until 10 years later, in 1846, that the word spaghetti was first recorded in a mainstream dictionary, where it was equated with vermicelli. Even today, in parts of Italy, particularly in the south, the words vermicelli and spaghetti are used to describe the same thing.

Myths, origins and etymological considerations aside, spaghetti as a staple of the masses didn’t become popular until the latter part of the 19th century. Its rise coincided with the introduction of the extrusion press and subsequent technological developments which simplified the laborious process of producing the long thin strands. Today some estimates suggest that spaghetti accounts for something in the region of two-thirds of the world’s consumption of pasta. Dishes such as spaghetti alla carbonara, spaghetti alle vongole (spaghetti with clams), spaghetti al pomodoro (spaghetti with tomto sauce), spaghetti, aglio, olio e peperoncino (spaghetti with garlic, oil and chilli peppers) have gained world renown and come to symbolise a nation, a people and its food.
As for myself, I’m going to go out and pick some spaghetti for lunch – I’ll take a look under the tree in the garden and if that fails, I suppose I’ll go to the shops.

Spaghetti with garlic, olive oil and chilli pepper
Spaghetti, aglio, olio e peperoncino

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

320g spaghetti
2 cloves garlic (or more, to taste)
1 fresh chilli or 1 tsp dried chilli flakes (again, more or less to taste)
6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
A handful chopped fresh parsley

Place the oil in a deep-sided frying pan. Heat gently and add the garlic finely sliced and the chopped chilli. Allow it to warm through and infuse very gently until the pasta is cooked. Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil and add the spaghetti. Cook until just al dente. Drain the pasta and throw it into the frying pan. Turn up the heat for just a few seconds while you thoroughly toss the pasta. Sprinkle over freshly chopped parsley and serve immediately.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Knowing Your Porcini Mushrooms

Today’s shopping basket is filled with porcini mushrooms. Admittedly, it’s not mushroom season yet but since dried porcini means that we never have to go without, I thought I’d jump the gun and raise a subject that’s very close to my heart. It’s a cautionary tale. Not all dried porcini are equal and it helps to know what you are looking for. So, for a few tips on finding the best, click on the shopping basket to your right.

While I'm here, if there are any Italian food products you’d particularly like to hear about, please feel free to let me know. Also, if you have any shopping stories to tell, pictures you might like to show or tips you want offer, again feel free to send them in my direction. I’m always shopping for new ideas!!!

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Italian Shopping Basket

Food shopping is one of my favourite pastimes. Browsing the stalls of a local artisan food market, visiting traditional alimentari (grocery stores) bursting at the seams with regional specialties, tasting what’s on offer in the makeshift store of a local producer, even scanning the shelves of the supermarket, food shopping for me is a perpetual quest for the best ingredients. Eating has to be about more than just the finished dish and food shopping is part of the experience.

For all of us, it’s a balancing act. Italy is an expensive country and the issue of cost always, unfortunately, has to be taken into consideration. Quality standards, such as the EU’s food classification scheme, help us to make informed decisions, yet often with the unwanted consequence of driving up price. But without some system of standards, the unwary shopper shops blind.

Trite though it may sound, the first rule of shopping today is ‘Always Read the Label’. Appearances can be deceptive. I’ve been stung on numerous occasions, returning home with products that frankly were not what they seemed and not what I wanted.

This new addition to my blog is a shopper’s companion. Whether you are here in Italy or abroad, whether you are shopping at the local supermarket or in an Italian specialty store, I’m going to take you through the best the country has to offer. From what to buy (what not to buy), when to buy it (when not to buy it), where to buy it (and where not) and what to do with it when you buy it, this is a no-holds, honest and candid guide for the Italian food shopper. Welcome to the Italian Shopping Basket!

To view today's shopping basket, white asparagus, click on the shopper's icon to the right.  

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Gnocchi – the other pasta

An editor in the UK once advised me that English readers were not particularly fond of gnocchi and that I should consider carefully before including a recipe in a book proposal I was preparing. She never explained why she thought so.

The conversation stuck in my mind. How could someone object to gnocchi? On what grounds did she base her claim? I came to the conclusion that perhaps she’d suffered what’s termed a ‘gnocchi meltdown’ – one of those moments when gnocchi magically disappear once plunged into boiling water, the result of having added too little flour to the mix. It can be frustrating (not to mention embarrassing), particularly if you have four hungry guests waiting in the next room for their first course! Not that that’s ever happened to me - I’m not the one with a grudge against gnocchi. 

Gnocchi are essentially a kind of dumpling and are closely linked to pasta. Most commonly made with potato and flour, they can also be made from a mixture of breadcrumbs or cornmeal with or without flour, or semolina or polenta. Often herbs or vegetables or cheeses comprise part of the mix. They can take different forms but generally they are about the size of a thimble, and are usually given a characteristic shape by rolling the dough briefly against the back of a fork or a grater or other such means. This helps the gnocchi to hold the sauce better.

The dumplings are cooked in boiling salted water and then dressed with a sauce in more or less the same manner as pasta. In some areas they are then baked for a short period in the oven – as in gnocchi alla romana. The most simple of sauces is butter and grated cheese, usually parmesan, sometimes with sage added. Other popular sauces include the ubiquitous tomato sauce, gorgonzola cheese sauce or a basil pesto but the variations are virtually endless.

Despite their popularity throughout the whole of Italy, there’s very little known about the origins of gnocchi except that they were probably linked with the history of pasta. This is due to the fact that many old cookery books referred to both as ‘m’caroni’ – as in ‘macaroni’ - coupled with the fact that similar ingredients and methods were used to make both. Older versions of gnocchi were made from a simple mixture of flour and water. One of the first mentions of the use of potatoes in the mix dates to the 1860s.

I’ve tried various supermarket varieties of gnocchi but they just aren’t the same. Often a potato flour is used which, as anyone who has eaten the home made version will likely tell you, just doesn’t achieve the same texture or taste as real potatoes. Making good gnocchi at home is simple and once you’ve mastered the knack, it makes for a very quick and economical dish. The key is finding a good quality floury potato. It’s also best to steam the potatoes as the last thing you want is a watery potato! Although recipe books will advise as to how much flour should be added, it’s best not to be too prescriptive. The type of potato used – as in how much water it absorbs in the cooking process – will affect the amount of flour required. With practice, gnocchi can easily be made without scales or measurements – it’s simply a question of adding flour until you have achieved the desired consistency. The following recipe, my grandmother’s, has proven a faithful companion for years and is a good basis to start from.

Gnocchi with a basil red sauce

Serves 4-6
Preparation time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: 1 hour

For the gnocchi
1kg floury potatoes
400g plain white flour
50g parmesan cheese

For the sauce
1 small onion
2 cloves garlic
500ml tomato passata
1 teaspoon sugar
A good handful of fresh basil leaves
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt & freshly ground black pepper

To make the sauce, finely chop the onion and add to a heavy-based pot with the garlic cloves and 3 or 4 tablespoons of olive oil.  Soften for 5 minutes and then add the tomato passata and a teaspoon of sugar.  Season with salt and pepper and simmer over a very gentle heat for about one hour. Do not stir. Add plenty of roughly torn basil leaves just before serving.

To make the gnocchi, boil the potatoes in a large pot of salted water.  When cooked, drain well and mash by passing through a potato ricer. Let the potatoes cool for a few minutes before continuing.  Place the flour on a large board or work surface, make a well in the centre and add the potato and finely grated parmesan cheese.  Gently work the flour and potatoes together with your fingertips and quickly knead together to form a smooth dough.  Rip off pieces of dough, roughly the size of a tangerine and roll with your hands into a long ‘snake’ about 1cm thick.  Don’t be afraid to dust the dough with additional flour as you work to stop it from sticking.  Cut the snake into 2cm pieces and roll each of the gnocchi over the back of a fork, pressing down gently with your thumb to create a small indentation.  To cook the gnocchi bring a large pot of salted water to the boil and add the gnocchi. When the gnocchi float to the surface they are ready (this will only take a couple of minutes, so have your sauce ready). Remove with a slotted spoon into a large serving bowl and add the tomato sauce.  Serve with extra freshly grated parmesan cheese.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Imbottigliare – Bottle up

As I make our way down along the long narrow, poorly illuminated corridor I can hear bottles clanking. I turn the corner and immediately I’m hit with the distinctive smell of musty grapes. Carlo’s already at work. We have over a dozen demijohns to siphon and bottle – a few bottles shy of a thousand – so there’s no time to waste.

Everyone that lives in the provinces bottles their own wine. Whether you make it yourself or buy it from one of the dozens of small cantine within a 10-minute drive from home, bottling is an annual ritual. Two makes bottling light work. Like a conveyor belt, one to act like a pump attendant -filling bottles, from one to the next, using a spotlight so that each bottle is filled to just the right level – the other to place and secure caps, crate up and make space for the next demijohn.

Assuming no spillage, a 28 liter demijohn yields approximately 36 bottles of wine, plus a couple of glasses. Carlo never spills a drop. And the two extra glasses are essential for quality control. Least that’s what Carlo keeps telling me. Having controlled the quality on six demijohns we stop for lunch – everything stops for lunch in Italy.

A bowl of anolini (small stuffed pasta cooked in chicken broth), a pork chop with green salad and another bottle of wine later, we resume. The shelves now full, I start filling empty wine crates. By mid afternoon we move on to the white wine – more bottles and more quality control. The wines in Piacenza seldom ever receive more than a passing reference in international wine circles. Guttornio, a dry local red, is more often than not served slightly fizzy and chilled. The predominant local white, ortrugo, is also dry and sparkling. Few of the wines produced in the province ever travel beyond its border. Wines more suited to ‘quaffing’ than serious consideration, is the standard response from the wine elite.

There may be an element of truth in that, although times have changed and under the radar some seriously good wines are now being produced in the province. But that’s another story and one that, no doubt, I’ll come back to at a later date. However, for now, it is probably fair to say that for many locals wine is seen as lubrication (albeit a very pleasing lubrication) for the not so humble food that is served on a daily basis. But it’s lubrication not without purpose. It’s lubrication that feeds a tradition. There was a time when it would have been inconceivable to imagine a meal in Italy without wine on the table. For the most part that wine would seldom have cost more than the time and effort required to tend to a vine, crush grapes and siphon the product into a bottle. And for the most part it would probably have been bottled within shouting distance of the table. What makes that wine special is not the label – should someone ever have bothered to attach one – but what it has always represented: a way of life.  

Monday, April 9, 2012

Pasquetta - The ‘Little Easter’ picnic

On Easter Monday – known as Pasquetta, or ‘little Easter’ – the tradition in Italy is to go on a picnic. When the weather permits, the long queues at the motorway tolls are a sure sign that that it’s a tradition still very much in vogue.  It’s not unusual for entire city’s to empty, venturing towards the mountains, the countryside or the sea.

Picnic-watching is a favourite pastime of mine. Italians take their picnics very seriously. Easter Monday lunch is an important meal in the Italian festive culinary calendar and just because it happens to be outdoors doesn’t mean it has to equate to anything less than would be eaten at home. It’s quite a spectacle watching families arguing over how to light the fire or standing anxiously over a huge pot of boiling spaghetti.

Personally I like to keep things simple. Leftover roasted lamb from the day before is always an easy option. Add some sliced griddled artichokes, dress with homemade peperoncino oil and a sprinkling of coarse salt and you have the perfect main for eating alfresco. I always bring a large bowl of rice salad. In the 15 minutes it takes to boil the rice, I dice some cooked seasonal vegetables (again, leftovers from Sunday lunch), add some mozzarella, chopped sun-dried tomatoes and ham. A good drizzle of olive oil, some chopped herbs, salt and pepper and the only problem is finding the lid for the large Tupperware bowl.

Eggs, symbolising fertility and rebirth, are an important addition to any meal over the Easter holidays. The tradition dates all the way back to the 4th century, when Christianity became the state religion in Italy and believers would exchange eggs as a gesture of hope and faith.  They are used for both savoury and sweet dishes. One dish that I’m particularly fond of is the torta pasqualina, a savoury tart highly popular in Ligura which is made with seasonal vegetables, a tangy cream cheese and eggs. It was traditionally made with either 33 ingredients or 33 layers of filo-like pastry, one for every year in the life of Jesus. Today it’s made all year round, though the recipe is generally somewhat abbreviated.

It is, however, a great dish for a picnic. It can be made the evening before, wrapped in foil and refrigerated. The recipe that follows is my own take on the dish. In Liguria it is often made with beet greens and quagliata, a tangy curd cheese. However, I prefer to use a mix of seasonal greens such as chard, spinach and beet and a fresh sheep’s milk ricotta (although cow’s milk ricotta works equally well). All that’s left is to throw the blanket, the picnic basket, the painted eggs and a bottle of sparkling white ortrugo in the boot, muster the children and it’s time for a picnic. Buona Pasqua -  Happy Easter!            

Savoury Easter Tart
Torta pasqualina

Makes one 20 x 30cm tart
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 1 hour

2 sheets rectangular shaped ready rolled puff pastry
1kg mixed fresh greens (spinach, chard leaves)
250g fresh ricotta cheese
4 eggs
Extra virgin olive oil
1 clove of garlic
30g grated parmesan cheese
Salt & pepper

Hard boil 3 eggs for 8 minutes.  When cooked remove from the pan and rinse under plenty of cold water. Whilst the eggs are cooking wash the greens well and place them in a pot with a tight fitting lid.  Place the pan over a medium heat and allow to wilt (this will take about 5 minutes).  When cooked, drain the greens well, removing as much excess water as possible.  Place 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a frying pan and add the greens with the garlic clove.  Season well and sauté for 5 minutes until all the moisture from the greens has been absorbed. Allow to cool and then mix in the ricotta cheese.

Place one sheet of the ready rolled puff pastry on a lined baking sheet and place the greens and ricotta mixture on top (allowing 2-3cm of a border).  Peel the boiled eggs and cut in half.  Arrange the boiled eggs over the pie and place another sheet of ready rolled puff pastry over the top.  Fold over the edges of the pie and crimp to seal well.  Beat the remaining egg and brush the top of the pie with the egg wash.  Cut a few slits in the top of the pie to allow the steam to escape and bake in a preheated oven at 180°C for approximately 40 minutes. Allow to cool before serving.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Colomba Pasquale

Every feast day in Italy has its traditional sweet treats. Carnival has its fried pastries – chiacchiere - Christmas its Panettone, New Year’s Eve its Pandoro and for Easter, one of the most important days on the Italian culinary calendar, it’s Colomba Pasquale. Similar, although not to be confused with Panettone, this aromatic yeasted sweet-bread is shaped like a dove.

Surprisingly little concrete is known about Colomba Pasquale. Its origins appear to date back to medieval times.  Legend has it that it was first made in Pavia, invented some time during the three-year-siege of the city by the barbarian hordes under the command of King Alboin. One story has it that the city’s defenders shaped the bread in the form of a dove to symbolize the intervention of the Holy Ghost in battle against the barbarians. Another version suggests it was offered as a token of peace to King Alboino after the city fell. Evidence to support either version of the story, it has to be said, is slim. What can be said with certainty is that whilst it did originate somewhere in the province of Pavia, today it has assumed something of a national status.

This morning, when I arrived just after 4 a.m. at La Casa del Pane for a master class on the art of making Colomba, my local artisan baker, Franco Filograsso, was already several hours into his shift. Making Colomba in the traditional fashion is a time-consuming process. In fact, Franco had started two days earlier with selective risings of the natural yeast starter. Today, it’s just a question of a final mixing of the dough, adding the candied peel, cutting and skillfully shaping the pastry into its distinctive dove-like shape, dressing the top with the traditional topping of egg yolk, sugar and almonds and finally into the oven. A short while later the air is filled with the unmistakable aroma of 200 freshly baked Colomba cakes, signaling to anyone who happens by that Easter is on its way.

You should easily be able to find artisan Colomba cakes in good bakeries in the run up to Easter. Boxed versions from producers such as Motta, Bauli and Tre Marie are also sold in most supermarkets and Italian specialty stores and are generally quite good. In addition to the traditional version, new varieties are now widely available, some with a custard cream filling, others made with the addition of fruit, cocoa powder or chocolate chip. Traditionally Italians eat Colomba to finish the Easter meal. It is normally enjoyed simply, on its own with a glass of sparkling white wine.

Monday, April 2, 2012

A well deserved 'pick me up' - Tiramisu

There's been something of a deep Spring clean taking place in the Matassa household over the past few weeks. I've borne the brunt of the effort (as always) and so over the weekend Elena decided that I was overdue a pick-me-up for all my efforts. At last, I thought to myself, due recognition. A reward in the Matassa household almost always involves food and this case was no different. Elena rallied the troops (kids) and set them to work.

It was an opportune moment, I have to admit, because the house is not the only thing that was earmarked for something of a Spring clean. Over the next couple of weeks I plan to give the Blog something of a makeover - or perhaps I should say "pick-me-up". Two new regular features are on the cards. The first, which you are about to witness, we will call Bambini in Cucina - or, put another way, Children in the Kitchen. In fact, put another way, my kids - Massimo (8), Giuliano (6) and Milly (1 and a little bit) - in the kitchen.

Today, on their debut appearance, they will be making (me) a tiramisu. I'll come back to you tomorrow on the subject of tiramisu and anyone that doesn't quite catch the recipe from the film that follows, I'll be posting that too. For now, get out the popcorn, find yourself a comfy seat and enjoy the movie (and please feel free to share your thoughts).

P.S. I should point out that not only is this my children's debut screen appearance, but also my directorial debut - so don't expect Spielberg!

Tiramisù – literally “pick me-up” – is an Italian dessert akin to an English trifle, most often made with a base of savoiardi biscuits soaked in espresso coffee (and usually liqueur) and covered with alternate layers of cream made from a mix of mascarpone, eggs and sugar and dusted with cocoa powder.  

The origins of this dish are steeped in uncertainty. The Slow Food Movement believes that it originated rather recently in Treviso in the Veneto, some time in the late 19th century.  However, as is often the case in such matters, both Piedmont and the Tuscans have also staked their claim over authorship. The Tuscans argue that it was invented in the 17th century by patisserie chefs in Siena in anticipation of, and as a tribute to, the arrival of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo de Medici. At the time, they claim, it was known as Zuppa del Duca – or the Duke’s Soup – and so taken was he by the dessert that he brought the recipe with him to Florence where it spread throughout Italy. Legend also has it that it quickly became a favourite amongst the nobles of the court who ascribed it aphrodisiac properties – hence the name, “pick me-up”.

In Turin in Piedmont, however, they tell a different story. The Piemontese claim that it was actually invented by a Turin pastry chef who made the cake in honour of Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour, to honour him in his task of unifying Italy.  Alternatively in Veneto it has been claimed that the dish originated in the ‘El Toulà’ restaurant in the town of Treviso.  The restaurant was located near a brothel, so they say, and the dish was invented by a chef at the restaurant specifically to ‘give a lift’!

Whichever story you choose to believe, tiramisù rapidly gained popularity both in Italy and abroad. There are many variations on the recipe. Some use zabaglione as the cream element, some prefer to incorporate strawberries or blueberries between the alternate layers, others add bitter chocolate, some use brandy, others prefer rum. Whichever recipe you use, at its worse tiramisù can be sickly sweet but at its best, sublime. Personally, I find it a wonderful ‘pick me-up’, as the name implies, after a long day’s work. Especially if someone else is making it! The recipe that follows has always worked well – just remember, you might want to omit the brandy if you intend serving it to children.


Serves 8
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: N/A

4 free-range eggs
4 tablespoons caster sugar
250g mascarpone cheese
400g savoiardi biscuits (ladyfingers)
350ml lightly sweetened espresso coffee
2-3 tablespoons dark cocoa powder

Begin by separating the eggs and placing the yolks and whites in large separate bowls.  Whisk the egg whites with an electric beater until stiff peaks have formed and set aside.  Add four tablespoons of sugar to the egg yolks and beat until pale and thick.  To this add the mascarpone cheese (better if the cheese has been left out of the fridge for 30 minutes) and beat everything together well.  Take the beaten egg whites and gently fold these into the mascarpone mixture.  To assemble the dish, take a large dish with high sides (a. 30 x 20 cm), dip the savoiardi biscuits into the coffee one at a time and lay them all along the bottom of the dish.  Add half of the mascarpone cream on top and spread out evenly.  Sift over a few tablespoons of dark cocoa powder.  Add another layer of savoiardi biscuits dipped in espresso, the remainder of the mascarpone cream and finally dust with cocoa powder.  Place in the fridge for at least 6 hours, preferably overnight, before serving.