During the past few weeks I made quite a number of pizzas, reason being I’m still testing out my oven. I didn’t want to bake before making sure I wasn’t about to burn anything. A couple of friends whom I visited last Saturday are still waiting for a lemon drizzle cake. And this morning, when I actually had some time on my hands, I ran out of sugar, so the cake just has to wait. My mum came over for a short visit though and we made some pizzas for lunch.
One evening I just wanted a simple side, prepared without too much faff for a weeknight supper. I must have had some leftover roast from the weekend before; can’t recall much because it has been a while. Proof? Look at the date. Yikes. J was still the one taking the photos for C&T. What I do remember though was that I had around an hour to spare for the prep and the cooking, and in a panic I just couldn’t think properly. Luckily in the nick of time I assembled an adaptation of an easy recipe by Gennaro Contaldo. I read it a few days before in Two Greedy Italians but with no time to find it from the book I tried to make a rough version of it. I have checked his recipe since then and he obviously gives measurement for every ingredient.
I’ve just had a day and a half, but I still want to share this with you. Two evenings ago I was watching some telly, absent mindedly browsing through the guide as one usually does after a busy day. I totally forgot that The Great British Food Revival was on, but luckily the tv was on at the right time. First up was the adorable Giorgio Locatelli, (I think he is but opinions may vary!) championing sardines. He convinced me but that’s another matter…
That reminded me that I haven’t said anything yet about Made In Sicily, which I unfortunately don’t own, but I have managed to borrow it from the library. (His other book Made in Italy has disappeared into thin air!) I loved the book instantly, notwithstanding the fact that I was feeling particularly homesick at that moment. I’m not Sicilian of course but perhaps the affinity I felt, and still feel to it, is because Malta and Sicily are neighbours…with similar histories, though I’m not the expert on that. Apart from the size (Malta is much smaller), the temperament of the people, the produce, food and the land are similar…it’s uncanny really. I have never been there, but after watching the three episodes of Sicily Unpacked (presented by Locatelli himself and Andrew Graham-Dixon) and quite a fair amount of RAI’s wonderful productions of Il Commissario Montalbano, I was forever charmed.
Like all good cookbooks, Made in Sicily, Fourth Estate, 2011 (and Made in Italy, Fourth Estate, 2008) is both a memoir and a recipe book. As always, I went to the Dolci chapter first! It was charming but strange (magnificently so) to find pignolata, cannoli, sfinci di San Giuseppe, all kinds of sorbetto, cassata, and torrone/nougat also known as the very very familiar Arabic ‘qubhayt‘. We Maltese make prinjolata, (not exactly the same thing but the word is almost the same), kannoli, sfineċ, etc. I know, right?! You’ve got to love it!
I did not try any sweets yet, and time is running out – I have got to return the book very soon. I liked the sound of Casarecce con broccoli, acciughe e broccoli…(oh jeezzz, e pinoli I) meant though (anchovies…mmm) so for one quick lunch that’s what I tried my hand at. I found some other recipes for this on the web and found out that Italians like to make this al forno. But for Locatelli’s recipe you only need the hob, which saves time, and tastes great all the same. For the pasta, I used penne, which is allowed! I changed some stuff around out of necessity (a.k.a. an understocked pantry) – shocked? Well, so am I; that rarely happens in this house! But there you go, it happens sometimes. I also took some shortcuts, taking out some of the steps because I didn’t have time to faff about. However I must tell you that the mixture was a tad dry; had I followed the method to the letter the recipe would have turned out much much better.* You have to work fast here but don’t let this deter you in any way, unless you really hate anchovies!
So I used 45g toasted breadcrumbs, a tin of anchovies in olive oil (drained because you only need the anchovies), pepper, broccoli (I had approx. 400g), 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil, 2 crushed garlic cloves, half a teaspoon of dried chilli flakes, 30g lightly toasted pine nuts, 20g sultanas, penne as required per person, and around 60g grated pecorino. (I used all the mixture for the sauce for 2 servings.)
In a large stock pot boil all the water you need for the pasta, but before cooking this, wash and chop the broccoli into florettes and cook them in this water until tender. When ready pull them out of the cooking water and let them drain. Now cook the pasta according to packet instructions.
While the pasta is cooking, in a large pan heat the olive oil, add the garlic and anchovies, and stir them until the anchovies disintegrate. This will not take long so be careful not to burn them. (As I almost did!) Add the toasted breadcrumbs. (*The step that I missed is the following: Set the garlic mixture aside, then in a separate pan add these: 1 clove garlic, chopped, 1 fresh red chilli, finely chopped, and it is in here that you add the broccoli. That is what you mix the pasta with. The anchovy mixture is added separately, later before serving, scattered over the pasta with the cheese.)
Add the chilli, broccoli, heat them through then add the pine nuts and sultanas.
When the pasta is cooked, tip it in the pan with the broccoli mixture and mix it well. Serve and divide the grated pecorino on each serving. Phew! Happy Weekend!
Writing a review about a book I really love is one thing, but doing so for one I have mixed feelings about is another. There is no need to say how much I like Nigella Lawson and her style of cooking. There are reviews out there saying something like: What is this? Another BBC series to accompany the book? I, on the other hand can say that I am enjoying the show. And yet, I still have my doubts. (This is *such* a hard thing to say!)
I have purchased Nigellissima: Instant Italian Inspiration myself, for various reasons; one, because I like her, and two, for the sake of completing the set (until the publication of the next book, of course.) Nigellissima is very different than all the others; this is not a bad thing in itself. I like the toned-down appearance of it, including the fact that there are more photos of the food than of Nigella herself. Though, to be honest, I miss her encyclopaedic style of writing. I miss the chunky in-your-face book, but there again, there can be only one How to Eat, Feast or book number eight, Kitchen. I always try to read cookbooks from cover to cover whenever I can, especially for reviews. I read this too. In a day. We don’t need a book as big as the Bible to convey the beauty and the simplicity of Italian food. Do we? Anna Del Conte has done it; so has Giorgio Locatelli. Perhaps I am totally missing the point. Nigellissima is the lovely lady’s take on Italian fare and that’s that. (Mentioning Anna Del Conte, the classic must-have is *not* Cooking with Coco as Nigella insists – perhaps a bit too much – but Gastronomy of Italy. More like it.) As far as ingredients go, I don’t understand the continuing emphasis on the so-called banana shallot. My Maltese readers are definitely familiar with the kind of onion we use for pickling. It is also found all over the south of France.
Please allow me to say something negative, and then I promise you it’s all positive from then on. I am not convinced of the savoury recipes – they left me a bit wanting. (And there endeth the negative ranting.) But hey, the sweet things are fantastically easy and tasty. I have been trying some of the recipes all week and boy, have they been a hit! The Tiramisini (page 162), a scaled-down version of the Tiramisù, is to die for. Please note that I am not a fan of Tiramisù. During a recent visit to Frascati (by all means not the home of this dessert) I had no choice but to have a taste. It was good of course, but nothing to write home about. However Nigella’s version is something else. Individual portions made it all the more easier to serve. Just get a glass or ramekin out and you’re done. It just needed an extra Savoiardi though to absorb more of the coffee mixture. But it is fine, even as is. You can find the recipe on Nigella’s website here. Try it and you will be a convert.
Yesterday, while the house was one big mess and J was working from home, I wanted to take a break: I needed a moment for baking. I decided to try the Italian Breakfast Banana Bread (on page 188). Good decision. In 10 minutes flat the cake was in the oven. There isn’t much Italian to be found in a banana bread, let’s face it, even if coffee is added to the mixture, and I like the recipe more for it’s fast preparation than for anything else, but it worked. And it was what I needed at that moment. This weekend it’s all about Nutella cheesecake. (I also made the Instant Chocolate Orange Mousse. The one from Express was quick and gloriously rich, but this one is better.)
Even though I would give Nigellissima a 3.5 on 5, there’s still a significant space for it in my bookshelf and in my kitchen. Taking baby steps for now, but it’s getting there.
My brother-in-law J2 has just returned to London for a long-ish study stint from la bellissima Roma. We met yesterday for an afternoon coffee in la charming Guildford for a chat. The main topic of discussion is obvious. He also reminded me of a piece he sent me for il mio bel blog. He is biased of course, but hey it still was nice of him to say. So this is his contribution, for which I am truly grateful.
Food. Italians can talk about passionately and heartily about it for hours on end, discussing the ins and out of it, and the best of local ingredients. So, picture the situation: sitting down at table at lake’s edge in Bracciano, some miles north of Italy, on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon, over a plate of Carbonara we had just cooked, and some local red wine to wash it all down. I was there with a few good friends, all from the Lazio region, and lo and behold, we had to discuss … pasta carbonara.
You see, many eateries in Rome, especially with a tourist bent, are likely to sell anything under that name. Not to say anything about what happens in other cities and countries which, to the Roman tastes, feels like complete anathema. Carbonara is, after all, a typical Roman dish … so I guess those from Rome and the region can best give advice.
I discovered that Carbonara can create a hearty debate too. Little about is not discussed. To start with its origin and its name. Apparently, it only figures in cookbooks on Roman cuisine after World War II. Maybe, the simple ingredients made it more of a country dish that came to the city in times of poverty, but one theory about its origin goes that it was an ingenious way the Roman made use of the supplies brought by the liberating American armies: bacon, and dehydrated eggs in powder. Supply these to a Roman mother, and here’s what she comes up with.
- pasta: penne or rigatoni (100g per person)
- bacon (actually, I’d go for guanciale, if available)
- eggs (one per person)
- cheese (pecorino Romano)
- ground black pepper
- extra-virgin olive oil
The dish itself is very easy to prepare. Fry some bacon in olive oil, on low heat, being careful not to overcook (it should not be brown and crisp!). In the meantime, cook the pasta – be careful to leave it really al dente. Drain the pasta, and leaving the pan on low heat, add it to the bacon and oil, mixing the whole lot together, and allowing it to cook just slightly, for the pasta to absorb some of the taste of the bacon.
In a separate bowl, beat the eggs and add the pecorino and the pepper. Take the pan off the heat, and mix in the eggs, cheese and pepper into the pasta and bacon. Serve immediately, and be sure not to leave it to cook any further as you’ll end up with scrambled eggs on pasta.
Simple. Of course. But then, we debated almost every ingredient. To start with the bacon. Although some prefer using pancetta, which is generally more readily available, a Roman would tend to argue for guanciale (a more delicate and tasty kind, made from the pig’s cheek, rather than its belly). Guanciale is certainly the kind you’d use for an Amatriciana, for instance, but opinions on the Carbonara vary. Some actually argue that the original Carbonara used pancetta, from the American soldiers’ supplies. Of course, some debate also reigns on whether the bacon should be fried on it’s own, or rather after having sautéed some garlic or onion (not both, that’s anathema!).
Then there’s the cheese. Typical Roman is the Pecorino Romano, a hard mature cheese made from ewe’s milk. Internationally, of course, the Parmiggiano-Reggiano is better known but, as the name betrays, this cheese is more typical of the Emilia-Romagna than Lazio. If you want to go for the more regional taste, I’d vote for Pecorino. But then, both are very tasty, and salty, which is why one often replaces the other, as the effect is quite similar.
Oh the eggs. I tend to love simpler preparation, so I’d tend to add the whole egg. Some argue, though, that it’s better to use just the egg yolk. Then, there’s all the shades of opinion in between!
Finally, the pasta. Usually, I’ve seen it served in restaurants with spaghetti. My local advisers consider it a no-no. Better go for pasta corta (short pasta, like penne or rigatoni, not spaghetti or linguine), as the bacon, cheese and egg stick better to it.
I had said finally. Yes, no Roman would add anything else. Forget cream or besciamella. And of course, you may add peas, broccoli, mushrooms, or other vegetables as some cooks do outside Italy … but then, just don’t call it Carbonara.
I’ve been reading Ching-He Huang’s Chinese Food Made Easy (Harper Collins, 2008) and Ching’s Fast Food (same publisher, 2011). I love Ching – her girly giggle and her never-ending enthusiasm for food are contagious. I prefer Ching’s Fast Food best because apart from being a recipe book, it is also a kind of memoir. I love this combination. I don’t have any clue about real Chinese cooking – and I mean the *real* deal, not the Americanised recipes we are so accustomed to eating in many so-called Chinese restaurants. As Ching says “Chinese food remains unappreciated…but there are signs that the disparity between takeaway food and ‘real’ Chinese cuisine is lessening.” Which is a good sign. It would be fantastic to experience a home-cooked meal, but alas, I could be waiting for quite a while! Ching’s recipes in both books are a twist on the traditional ones, I find her to be most inspiring and I will definitely try to be more adventurous with my cooking…
There’s nothing wrong with tradition though, which brings me to a family of books which I purchased from the National Trust. I have two favourites: The National Trust Farmhouse Cookbook and Complete Traditional Recipe Book. I have made quite a number of recipes from both books. The latter is quite thick and it’s almost split half and half (sweet and savoury/cooking and baking). The Farmhouse Cookbook is not to be overlooked though; it takes you to different NT properties and tells you about local specialities and ingredients, and of course how these are sourced. They are a good reference for anyone who wants to know more about British food (yes, there *is* such a thing) and British heritage.
Hopping from the UK to Italy now…(it’s almost sounding like Euro 2012)! Well, I won’t go into that but there’s no denying that the food in Italy is not just great – it’s divine. If you agree and you love to cook, then you just have to have Anna Del Conte’s Gastronomy of Italy. I know I have mentioned this book before but I cannot have a list of favourites and not include it! It would be just plain wrong. It’s not just a recipe book – it’s a mixture of food and history, and you know how much I enjoy this kind of literature. This is a must-have for anyone interested in the subject.
I won’t bore you anymore with my ramblings (on books that is…) but I hope that you will find all this helpful if you’re thinking about getting some cookbooks either for you or for a foodie friend. Now for a brief disclaimer to put things right, please note that I was *not* paid by anyone to review these books. They are just the ones I like at this moment and of course whatever I wrote about them is my personal opinion. Patti chiari, amicizia lunga, or so they say…