Friday, March 30, 2012

A Spring Pasta Salad

Spring has arrived. All the signs are here. The market stalls are filled with spring vegetables, the trees are budding and the sun is beaming. Carlo, my neighbour, said it’s time to get to work in the orto – vegetable patch. I dusted down my old boots and went to the consorzio this morning and bought seeds. And if you need further evidence of the changing season, the odd Italian is even braving the outdoors without a jacket – although not before midday.  

Yesterday at the market the asparagus, peas, spring onions and fine green beans were stacked alongside the last of the winter vegetables. The first spring vegetables are always popular and trade was brisk. The lady in front of me was buying long thin asparagus shoots. She had a fistful of asparagus in one hand, a bunch of spring onions in the other, and was waving her arms excitedly trying to catch the farmer’s attention – I figured she was planning a risotto. Peas were selling well too. With a nod of approval from the farmer, I opened a pod. They were small, sweet and tender – perfect for what I had in mind.

Pasta salad is hugely popular in Italy, especially in the late spring and summer. It’s a versatile dish, inexpensive and simple to make and perfect for a refreshing lunch on a hot sunny day, a lunchbox filler or a picnic. There are infinite versions of this dish with practically every family having their own favourites. The key is to choose the freshest seasonal ingredients available.

The only real sticking point – and, believe it or not, a matter of some considerable debate among Italians – is how to cool the pasta after cooking without destroying its texture. The traditional method is to pour a glass of cold water into the pot once the pasta is al dente to stop it cooking and then drain and rinse under cold water. However, many Italians will tell you that by stopping the cooking in this way the pasta absorbs too much water and can become gluey (or soggy). They have a point. A better way, it is claimed, is to begin by rinsing the uncooked pasta under water to remove some of the starch. It should then be boiled in plenty of salted water and drained when just al dente. To finish, the pasta should be tossed in a couple of tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil and laid out onto a cold steel or aluminium tray or surface. As the pasta cools it should be moved every so often to prevent sticking and to speed up the cooling process. Admittedly, this is a somewhat laborious procedure but, take my word for it, it does help to improve the quality of the finished dish. 


Spring Vegetable Pasta Salad
Insalata di pasta con verdure primaverile

Serves 4
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 30 minutes

300g short pasta such as fusilli or penne
200g shelled fresh peas
150g fine green beans
200g scamorza cheese, cut into cubes
150g black olives
250g baby cherry tomatoes
Extra virgin olive oil
Bunch of fresh basil
1 Tablespoon finely chopped parsley
Salt & freshly ground black pepper

Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil and add the pasta.  Cook the pasta until just al dente and drain.  Place the pasta back into the pot and add a few tablespoons of extra virgin oil.  Tip the pasta onto a metal tray and allow to cool.  Whilst the pasta is cooling, cook the green beans in salted water until tender.  Two minutes before they are cooked add the peas.  Drain and cool. 

To assemble the salad, place the pasta in a large bowl.  Add the tomatoes, cut into quarters, the olives, peas, chopped green beans and the scamorza cheese.  Season generously with salt and pepper and dress with a few tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, chopped parsley and basil leaves.   

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Pasta and Potatoes (alla Napoletana)

The combination of pasta and potatoes is too often overlooked. A dish rich in carbohydrates and starch, the combination doesn’t fit into the modern day conception of eating light. As for myself, pasta and potatoes are a match made in heaven. It’s hard to imagine a more perfectly conceived duo for someone with mixed Italian and Irish heritage.

In Ireland the potato was for long what pasta was to the Italians – a cheap, widely available staple well suited to filling the hungry bellies of a large family. It is still considered a staple in Ireland, just as pasta is in Italy. The history of the potato in the Italian kitchen, however, charts a slightly different trajectory. It did become popular in the countryside, particularly from the late 18th century, but never as a staple food.  It was never either considered or treated as a simple accompaniment to everything, the Italians having always seen the potato as an ingredient in its own right.

Pasta and potatoes feature together in Italy on a regular basis. Liguria has trenette al pesto, thin strands of pasta cooked along with green beans and cubes of potato, served with a basil pesto. In Lombardia, buckwheat pasta is served with boiled potatoes and cabbage and finished with melted taleggio cheese. Throughout the country, diced potatoes are often added to the evening’s bowl of minestrone along with other vegetables.

One of the best, in my opinion is a dish that originated in Naples in Campania. My family is from the area and it is a dish that I grew up with. Paste e patate alla Napoletana (pasta and potatoes Neapolitan-style) is a tasty and nutritious dish that most likely originated in the countryside around Naples. The Neapolitans traditionally made it using a variety of kitchen leftovers – such as mixed pasta and the chopped rind of parmesan - so it was almost certainly a dish associated with the local cucina povera.  Today there are numerous variations on the dish and what follows is my personal take on it. It’s quick and simple to make, highly flavoursome and makes for the perfect evening meal.

Pasta and potatoes Neapolitan-style
Pasta e patate alla Napoletana

For 4 people
Cooking time 15 minutes


320gr mixed dried pasta
600gr potatoes, diced small
100gr sweet cherry tomatoes
70gr pancetta chopped small
1 medium onion
1 stalk of celery
A spoonful of chopped celery leaves
Parmesan cheese for grating
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper

Chop the onion and the celery and add to a heavy-based frying pan along with the olive oil. Add the pancetta and fry gently until the vegetables begin to soften. Roughly chop the cherry tomatoes and add these to the pan along with the diced potatoes. Stir well and continue to simmer on a gentle heat.

Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil and add the pasta. If you are cleaning out your cupboards and using different shapes of pasta, make sure to add them according to cooking time. Cook until al dente.

A couple of minutes before the pasta is cooked turn up the heat on the frying pan to reduce the cooking liquid. Do not let it dry out completely. Check for seasoning. Once the pasta is ready, drain and add this to the pan. Mix together well and throw in a couple of tablespoons of freshly grated parmesan cheese. Finish with a sprinkling of chopped celery leaves.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Two slices of bread packed with jargon – the sandwich

A couple of days back, in an online conversation with one of my favourite blogger’s (AKA Jane Random:, I was reminded of the subtle differences in the English language posed by the Atlantic divide. The specific topic of conversation, on this occasion, was sugar – specifically, caster sugar. My fellow blogger, Jane, was momentarily baffled. After a little research I discovered that the equivalent, for anyone that lives State side, is Superfine Sugar – but not powdered, which, incidentally, we call ‘icing’ sugar.

This brief bi-lingual tête-à-tête got me thinking of the days when I worked as a short order cook on New Jersey’s boardwalks and, a couple of years later, as a grill man in the city of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia. At the time, as it happens, I was sitting by my computer working my way through a double-decker sarnie – put another way, I was eating a sandwich. It brought to mind an occasion back in Philly. I was standing behind the counter in the early afternoon daydreaming when one of the regulars came in and asked me for his usual ‘chompie’ with extra everything. It took a few seconds before reality dawned and I managed mentally to translate the request. He was in fact asking for a hoagie, extra mushrooms, extra onions and extra cheese.

The lexicon that has developed around what is essentially two pieces of bread stuffed with some form of filling is amazing. The sandwich goes by many names. Years back in Belfast, when I was younger, if my mother asked if I wanted a sanger, a sarnie, a toastie or a butty, I had a fairly clear idea what was being offered. This colloquialism would likely be lost in translation if I crossed the Atlantic. And likewise, newcomers to the States require a little orientation before they can capably navigate the subtle differences between, among many others, a hoagie, a sub, a submarine, a torpedo, a po’boy, a grinder, a Dagwood, a club and a Hero – let alone the range of each on offer.         

What we are talking about is essentially two (or more) pieces of bread either side of a filling – barring, of course, the open sandwich which, in my opinion, is missing the point! Reading up on this subject I discovered that the origin of the ‘sandwich’ is attributed to John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, who, back in the 1760s is said to have asked for cold meats between bread to avoid having to leave the gaming table. Others noticed and would subsequently say ‘I’ll have the same as Sandwich’.  

What does all this have to do with Mario’s Italian Kitchen, you might well ask? I love sandwiches and having lived in both the UK and the U.S, two countries that afford the sandwich its due respect, I’ve been forever spoiled. The problem is that the Italians are not nearly as enamoured as I am by Montagu’s ground breaking invention. As far as sandwiches are concerned, in Italy, more often than not, you are faced with a somewhat derisory and unexciting choice between either a panino (denoting all kinds of bread roll stuffed) or a tramezzo (sliced bread, again stuffed and most often toasted). The natural evolution of the sandwich seems to have stagnated here and, in comparison to English speaking countries, we remain fixed somewhere in the dark ages.

This has much to do with the fact that a fast lunch at the bar was traditionally eschewed by Italians in preference for a long, leisurely lunch in a local trattoria or back at home with the family. In the province’s this is still very much the case. The choice of sandwich on offer in the local bars seldom extends beyond a panino stuffed begrudgingly with a slice or two of mortadella or a panino stuffed with a slice of cheese (for the vegetarian). And if you want mayonnaise, let alone any other condiment, more likely you will have to ask. But asking doesn’t necessarily mean you will get. Of course, I’m not knocking the simple panino. It has its place and, made with one of the country’s many wonderful cured meats, it is, no question, a great snack. But sometimes less is not more, it’s just that, less.

Of course there are sandwich hotspots scattered throughout the country that break the rule – particularly in the cities where bars cater to new and developing work ethics along with tourists. But back here in the province’s, for someone who dreams of Philly cheese steaks with caramelised (that’s caramelized if you are American) onions, a double-decker club with extra bacon, turkey and crisp lettuce or a Reubens packed high with corned beef and extra kraut on sourdough, the choice here, I have to say, remains most unsatisfactory. It shouldn’t be so. In fact, given the combination of Italian culinary inventiveness and the superb choice of fresh ingredients on our doorstep, Italy should lead the world in the sandwich stakes. The problem is one of culture. Italians will without hesitation sit down to an enviable antipasto of mixed cured meats, local cheeses and fresh or preserved vegetables, but the bread will remain on the sideline, eaten apart. Few dare imagine, let alone take the next step – cut that panino in half and shove the antipasto in between. So, for the time being, I’m forced to make my own sandwich, wrap it to go and carry it around the corner to the bar with me. Here’s one of my personal favourites – and I’ve even invented a new name for it!

Mario’s Mediterranean Ciabatta ‘sandwichino’

Serves 2

2 ciabatta bread rolls
100g thinly sliced chicken breast
100g Parma ham
2 boiled eggs, sliced
1 small red onion, thinly sliced
A handful of leaves of red radicchio, shredded
2 artichoke hearts, thinly sliced
1 roasted sweet red pepper, peeled and cut into strips
A few sundried tomatoes in olive oil, chopped into small pieces
75g quartirolo cheese or feta
Extra virgin olive oil
Dried oregano
Freshly ground black pepper

Cut the ciabatta rolls in half lengthways. If preferred, you can toast the bread. I generally only do so if the bread is not at its freshest. Butter the base with a thin layer of mayonnaise and then add a few slices of Parma ham and chicken breast. Arrange a bed of red onion and some red radicchio. Top with the sliced egg, artichoke hearts, red pepper and sundried tomatoes. Crumble the quartirolo or feta cheese over the top. Drizzle with plenty of extra virgin olive oil and then sprinkle over the oregano and ground black pepper. (I don’t add any additional salt as the cheese is already salty. However this is just a question of taste.) Place the top of the bread roll over the sandwich stuffing and press down gently. The sandwich is ready to eat at this point. However, I find that it improves when wrapped tightly in aluminium foil and allowed to rest in the fridge for a couple of hours. In this way the juices from the sundried tomatoes and peppers mix through the ingredients and the sandwich binds together. This is a great sandwich to take on a long drive or on a picnic.  

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

A Mimosa Cake for the Festa della Donna

Tomorrow’s a day many Italians dread… or, put another way, tomorrow’s the day many Italian men dread. That’s because it’s the festa dellla donna – or Woman’s Day which means tomorrow is the day many women put on their best frock and take to the restaurants to celebrate their womanhood – leaving the men folk at home to fend for themselves. For many Italian men, that means either starve or retreat to the bar for a humble panino.

For me it’s not so much a problem as I consider myself a fairly deft hand in the kitchen. But for a lot of my friends at the bar, I know it’s a day they have come to dread. They can’t even resort to their mother’s house for dinner because even Mamma takes the day off on the 8th of March!

Joking aside, International Women’s Day (IWD) is a global day celebrating the economic, political and social achievements of women past, present and future. It has its roots in early twentieth century socialist political movements in Eastern Europe with the first IWD having been observed in Germany in 1911. It became popular in the West in the 1970s.

In Italy, whilst the Festa della Donna isn’t exactly an official holiday, it is widely recognized and observed. It was first held in 1946, organized by the feminist UDI (Union of Italian Women) and its popularity is such today that it’s become something of a de facto unofficial public holiday for women only!  Unlike local festivals, it’s one of those rare national events that are celebrated throughout the country. So, if you are a woman travelling in Italy on the 8th of March, whether you’re in Viareggio in Tuscany or Casino in Lazio, or anywhere in the country for that matter, as luck would have it, there’s going to be a party happening nearby. (The only downside - if you consider it such - you’ll have to leave your husband or boyfriend behind in the hotel.)

The only consolation for us men is we don’t have to remember to buy flowers. Yellow mimosa is the flower of choice and women exchange bouquets among themselves – which is fine by me. There is no hidden or ideological reasoning behind the mimosa. Story has it that it was chosen as a symbol by Roman women at the time because it was sweet smelling, one of the few flowers available in March and, perhaps more importantly, it did not cost much. But the tradition took hold and the yellow mimosa has become an Italian symbol of Women’s Day.

The other tradition that comes with the day is eating out. Go anywhere in Italy on the 8th of March and the restaurants will be filled with women. You’ll be hard pushed to see a man unless he’s carrying a serving platter or another bottle of wine. Tables are filled with friends, sisters, aunts, cousins, daughters, mothers, grandmothers… even great grandmothers! 

The dish of the day is Torta Mimosa. Although regional preferences still dictate menus across the country, the Mimosa cake is the one exception and is served everywhere. It is a cake covered with pieces of sponge cake, reminisent of the flowers of the mimosa. Almost certainly it was made around the same time that mimosa was chosen as the symbol of Women's Day in Italy. Being a poisonous flower, mimosa cannot be sued as an ingredient and therefore the sponge is chopped to give the appearance of mimosa.

I’m not having Mimosa cake, obviously, because I haven’t been invited to the party. I’m going to have to settle for something more humble. Most likely I’ll go around to the bar, join the disgruntled and drown our sorrows. Besides, it’s only one day in the year and then it wll be back to business as usual!

Mimosa cake
Torta Mimosa

Makes one 22cm cake
Preparation time: 20 minutes + chilling time for the cream
Cooking time: 20 minutes
For the cake
4 free-range eggs
200g caster sugar
200g self raising flour

For the cream
300ml whole milk
2 egg yolks
1 heaped tablespoon plain flour
2 tablespoons caster sugar
250ml cream
Icing sugar to serve

Separate the eggs.  Add the sugar to the yolks and whisk until thick and foamy.  To this add the sifted flour and fold in gently. Whisk the whites to stiff peaks and fold into the mix.  Divide the cake mixture equally into two 22cm greased and lined cake tins and place into a preheated oven at 180ºC for 20 minutes. 

Whilst the cakes are cooking make the cream. Gently heat the milk, but do not boil.  Whilst heating the milk, whisk the egg yolks together with flour and sugar in a bowl.  Add a little of the warm milk to the egg mixture and stir well.  Then add the egg mixture to the rest of the milk and heat until gently boiling, stirring all the time. Cook for a few minutes until the cream thickens.  Set aside to cool completely.  Once cold, whip the cream until stiff and fold into the patisserie cream

When both the cream and cake are cool you can start assembling the cake.  Slice each cake in half (so you have 4 layers in total).  Chop one layer into 1cm dice.  Fill the other layers with the cream and place the cream all over the top and sides of the cake.  Decorate the top of the cake with the small cubes of cake and dust with icing sugar.

Monday, March 5, 2012

all’ Amatriciana

Italians love talking about food. It’s a national preoccupation. If they’re not talking about football or politics, more likely than not the subject is food. Last night I went to the bar to eat a plate of pasta with Gigi, the owner, and a few of the regulars. It’s a ritual we take to over the winter months when the weather’s too cold and the night’s too short for doing much else. We take turns cooking in the back kitchen, nothing too strenuous, usually just a simple plate of pasta with salad and cheese or mixed cured meats to follow. It’s informal but yet I’ve had some great meals there.

Last night it was Gigi’s turn to cook and he made bucatini all’ Amatriciana. It’s a dish I make often myself at home, a personal favourite. My family’s originally from Lazio where it’s considered something of a regional specialty. In fact, such is its popularity in Rome that many people (our host last night included) mistakenly assume it originated in the city or region. However, all’ Amatriciana is in fact a sauce for pasta that took its name from the town of Amatrice, in the province of Rieti in Abruzzo. Gigi, of course, disagreed and the argument was only resolved (an hour later) after sending his son upstairs to his apartment for a copy of his Cucina Nazionale encyclopedia. Like politics and football, food talk always degenerates into heated argument in Italy. It’s part of the main course!

The misconception around the dish in large part no doubt stems from its popularity. It’s a sauce served over pasta that you can find in pretty much every restaurant in Rome. The Romans, cheekily, even have their own name for it – alla matriciana – as if by calling it so they can claim it as their own. Like most of the Italian classics, it’s fairly straightforward, resting its status not so much on technique as in the favourable combination and quality of the ingredients used. There are variants on the dish but normally it is made with diced guanciale (cured pigs cheek), cooked with chopped onion in oil, with a colouring of pelati (peeled plum tomatoes), pecorino cheese and red hot chilli. The tomatoes should not be used to such an extent that they overwhelm the dish. The sauce is more often than not served over either bucatini or perciatelli (both hollow spaghetti-like pasta), although some restaurants use rigatoni or spaghetti.

The predecessor to Amatriciana was the Gricia (or Griscia), a sauce which predated the arrival and use of tomatoes in the kitchen.  Acceptable variants on the dish include the use of pancetta instead of guanciale, lard instead of olive oil or adding a couple of cloves of garlic before frying off the guanciale. However, using parmesan as an alternative to pecorino cheese is generally disdained as it changes the character of the dish.   

Serves 4
Preparation time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 10-12 minutes

320g bucatini pasta
150g diced guanciale (or pancetta)
1 medium onion finely sliced
6 ripe plum tomatoes (if in season) or a tin of roughly chopped tinned tomatoes
4 heaped tablespoons of freshly grated pecorino cheese
1 small fresh or dried chili finely chopped with seeds
A few tablespoons of olive oil

Begin by bringing a large saucepan of salted water to the boil.  While you are waiting, gently fry the onion in a few tablespoons of olive oil.  The water should be boiling at this point, so throw in your pasta.  Whilst the pasta is cooking add the pancetta to the onions and cook until browned.  Next, add the tomatoes. If they are in season, use fresh tomatoes that have been roughly chopped - alternatively use tinned. Add the chili and check for seasoning.  Allow the sauce to simmer until the pasta is cooked.  Once the pasta is cooked, drain and add to the pan, stirring well to combine all the ingredients.  Top with plenty of freshly grated pecorino cheese and serve immediately.