Sunday, 19 August 2007

Chicche Della Nonna with Fresh Tomato and Basil Sauce

I won't start by saying that these are quick. They aren't. They take time, but, having said that they are quick to cook. Don't forget that these freeze really well so it's worth making lots even if you are only two of you. They make a fast meal when you're in a hurry and so much better than the bought ones.

Start by making the sauce which you can set aside until you need it. The day before is fine. Just remember that it contains fresh cream so it will not last forever.

This is a quick and easy sauce that has the advantage of being easy to freeze and it uses basil in a way which keeps the taste fresh. No mean feat with basil as it usually looses its taste very easily.

To make the sauce:

500g of skinned and chopped fresh tomatoes, If you are going to make this sauce with British tomatoes then choose the ripest that you can get. Failing that 1 tin of good quality tomatoes.
1 small onion of shallot,
50g of butter, 1 tbs oil,
150ml cream,
a small bunch of fresh basil. Do not use dried.
1/2 a stock cube - Knorr, gusto classico
salt and pepper:
To make the sauce:

Fry the onion in the oil and butter until it is a light golden colour. You do not want to brown it too much as it spoils the colour of the sauce. Neither do you want the onions to be under cooked so cook them slowly.
Add the chopped tomatoes and bring to the boil. Turn the heat down to a simmer and cook slowly for about 30 mins. Add the stock cube and salt and pepper to taste.
Whizz up with a blender and then return to the pan. Add the cream and the chopped basil and stir through. Keep warm without boiling. This is a lovely sauce. Just you wait and see.

To make enough chicche for 6 people:
800g of potatoes
400g of spinach
400g of plain flour
300g fresh ricotta
2 eggs
Wash, peel and boil the potatoes. Drain well and mash well to get rid of any lumps.
Wash the spinach well and cook in a pan with only the water clinging to the leaves. This will only take about 5 minutes. Alternatively, put the spinach in the pressure cooker and bring to pressure. Switch off and leave to come too normal pressure. When you open it the spinach will be cooked. Drain well and squeeze until you can get out as much water as possible. wet spinach do not make good chicche.Chop the spinach as finely as possible. you can use a mezza luna or failing this put it in a decent food processor and chop until it is really fine.
Put it in a bowl and add the eggs, the ricotta the potatoes and mix well. Add enough of the flour to make a soft dough that holds together. You may use all of the flour of slightly more or less than that given, it depends on the wetness of the potatoes and the flour.
Put in the fridge for about an hour. This will make it easier to work.

Flour the work surface well. Cut of pieces of the dough and roll out into thin sausages about 1cm thick and cut off pieces of about 1cm in length. You can cut them shorter as is the tradition but life is too short and they taste the same whatever size that you make them. Having said that, too big is no good as they do not cook properly.
Set aside while you use up the rest of the dough. I tend to store mine on a Teflon mat that I bought in Tesco. It's great as I can also use it to freeze the chicche and it releases them without having to over flour the sheet.
put the oven on and a bowl that yo can put the chicche in to keep warm.
Cook the chicche in lots of boiling water. By this I mean at least 3lt. Do not cook them all at once. You will have a dreadful mess if you do.
The chicche are done as soon as they rise to the top of the water. Do not be tempted to cook them for longer as they will turn into bullets.
I cook about 20 at a time. Put the chicche in the oven in the pre-warmed bowl. This will keep them warm while you cook the rest a few at a time.
Dress with the warm sauce and lots of Parmigiano. Lovely.

Saturday, 18 August 2007

This is one of the simplest creams that I know of and luckily enough it is also delicious.

To make this ambrosial cream take:

250ml of whipping or double cream
250 ml of Greek yogurt - full fat. Don't bother with thin skimmed stuff
a few drops of vanilla essence
about two tablespoons of sugar - use more or less according to the degree of sweetness that you enjoy.

Whip the cream and then fold in the yogurt vanilla and sugar.Put in a bowl and leave for a few hours to stiffen up. Eat with poached fruit. In the photo you will see that I served it with poached mirabelle plums. Yumm!

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

Torta d'Erbe

This is yet another way to use the spinach beet that grows so abundantly in the summer months and have the advantage of tasting delicious. This is also a perfect pie for a vegetarian. As you can see from the photo of the spinach in the orto, there is lots, and that's after I picked the stuff that I used.

In the region where I come from there are feste to this torta. Well let's face it in Italy there are feste to just about anything. The other day, while to drive through a place called Farini d'Olmo, I was amazed to see advertised a festa to tractors. No doubt there would be food, dancing and lots of wine. Not while on the tractor, I hope.

For the filling:

About 750g of spinach after it has been stripped from the stalks.
100ml approx of olive oil. This does not need to be extra virgin.
150g of Parmesan cheese, grated
2 eggs
Salt and pepper
2 tbs plain flour

Strip the spinach from the stalks and if you feel industrious then use them in another dish. I usually just compost them as I really don't know what to do with them. I then slice the spinach and dry it in a salad spinner. This helps to get rid of any excess water which will spoil the torta.
Now put the spinach in a bowl with the rest of the ingredients and mix well. You will be surprised by the way that the mixture decreases in volume.
Now, I know that this contains raw eggs but I tend to taste the mixture to assess the seasoning. If there is not enough salt or cheese, add some more. It's your torta. Just remember that it is not a quiche and should not contain too many eggs.
You might have thought that you had too much before but now you will see sensible proportions. It will reduce even more while it cooks.

The pastry is made in a similar way to the pastry for the torta di patate. This may not seem much pastry but it will be rolled out thinly. Using very little fat and tepid water will allow you to do this.

250gm plain flour

75gm butter

tepid water

Make the pastry by rubbing the butter into the flour and add enough tepid water to make a softish dough. Roll out to line and overlap a shallow tin. The tin should be about 30cm x 40cm. If you don't have one of these then use a few smaller ones, I do as there are only two of us now. Empty nest and all that.

Pile the filling into the ready lined tin and cover with a sheet of thin pastry. Remember that the pastry has to be as thin as pasta. Fold the side edges over the central disc and press down lightly. You can egg wash the top but i don't tend to do that as I brush with milk instead. I once tried to brush with oil but this made an over crisp topping that I didn't much like.
As an alternative you can make two round torta. Each tin will be about 30cm in diameter.
Cook in a hot oven. 230C or gas 7. It should be well cooked underneath or it will go soggy. I hate soggy pastry. Cover the top if browning too much. Allow to cool for about 10 minutes before eating. This avoids burning your mouth. As if!

Buon appetito!

Mirabelle Plum Tartlettes

As some of you from the Italy Magazine may well know I have been blessed and perhaps cursed by a glut of Mirabelle plums. When I first saw them on the trees I couldn't believe that I had been so lucky. They shone golden and tempting in the afternoon light and I couldn't wait to eat them warm from the tree. I had pictures of Elizabeth David's descriptions of eating apricots warm from the tree on my mind. Well. I'm glad to say that that delight did not fall short of the expectation and the ripe plums were honey sweet and delicious.

Where does the curse come into the equation? There are so many. It is impossible to eat them all so the great cook in of the plums had to begin and I have started with these delectable little tartlettes to whet your appetites.

First the pastry
150g plain flour
90g butter
1 egg
50g sugar

Make the pastry by creaming the butter and sugar until soft and white. Beat in the egg and then add the flour and lievito. Mix together to form the pastry. If it is too soft then add a little more flour. This should not be as firm as a traditional pastry as it will not be rolled out, but pushed into the tartlette cases instead. Now proceed to do just that.

Divide the pastry into approximately 12 pieces and pat each piece into shape in the tartlette tins.

I've become a convert of the silicone bakewear that has flooded the market in the last few years. It is easy to use, the things that you bake in it don't stick and it is easy to wash. End of discussion as far as I am concerned. Another advantage for using silicone bakewear for making these tartlettes is that they can remain in the cases until cool. They can then be pushed out without having to resort to a knife to prise them out. This is especially good for rich pastries.
Remove the stones from about 24 plums and push, skin side up into the pastry. I didn't bother to sugar the plums as they take their sweetness from the pastry and I like a little sharp contrast to the pastry.

Bake in the oven at about gas mark 5 until they are golden brown.
Remove from the oven and when cool enough take out of the cases. Do not do this too soon as the pastry is rich and will break when warm.

Dust with icing sugar, or if in Italy, buy the sugar that is sold for dusting as it will not melt. Now eat them. But I didn't need to tell you that, did I?.

Monday, 13 August 2007

Tortelli di Erbette

This is another traditional dish from the Parma region and one that I have eaten all my life. It was an easy one for my mother to recreate in the UK as all the ingredients were readily available and even if she couldn't get ricotta cheese all those years ago in the 1960's she could substitute it with cream cheese. In those days she also had to use the ordinary plain flour that was on sale in the corner shop as the influx of imported flours now available was a dream of the future.

Tortelli may be readily available in the supermarkets but it is not a patch on the home made variety which was kept for feasts not eaten as an every day food. Some things are special and the ready made stuff is ordinary so, in my view, is not worth eating. Real tortelli takes time to make. I won't kid you that it is quick but it is worth it. You will taste the difference and that is not a plug for Sainsbury's.

This recipe will make enough for 4 people.

So we start with the pasta:

3 medium eggs, use the best organic free range eggs that you can get if you want your pasta to be a good bright yellow colour.
300g of '00' Italian flour. This is soft flour. It says tenero on the pack. This means tender or soft. I've heard some UK cooks telling TV audiences to use hard flour. Ignore this twaddle.
1/2 a teaspoon of salt.

Throw the lot into a food processor and process until it resembles a rubble. Pour out on to a work surface and kneed to get the mixture together. Do not be tempted to add water, even though it may seem dry to you. Wrap the dough in cling film or put in a small plastic bag and put to rest in the fridge for about an hour. You will be amazed at how the dough has softened up after its rest.

While the dough is resting get on with the filling.

You will need about 1 Kg of Spinach beets. Use ordinary spinach if this is unavailable. Weigh before thae stems are removed. I tend to like my tortelli green, if you prefer more cheese then alter the proportions.
250g Ricotta cheese
1 egg
100g grated Parmesan cheese, grate it yourself. Do not buy the ready grated.
1/teaspoon of salt
A pinch of nutmeg. I hate nutmeg so I leave it out. I tell you this for authenticity only.

Clean the spinach in plenty of water and cook in a pan with only the water clinging to the leaves. This will take only a few minutes. Drain and squeeze out as much of the water as possible.
Do not be tempted to skimp on this as it is important. A wet filling will cause the pasta to disintegrate. Not good. What I do is put on a pair of clean latex gloves and squeeze as hard as possible. Latex gloves are good as they stop the spinach from staining your nails. It takes days to get the stain out. Stained nails may be good on old style Nonna's but this modern one likes to keep her nails clean.
Put the spinach in a food processor along with the rest of the ingredients and pulse until the mixture is thoroughly amalgamated. You should have a semi-soft mixture. It should not be sloppy. If it is too soft add more grated parmesan or dry bread crumbs. Set aside.

Now the fun begins.

Cut the pasta into about 4 pieces. use 1 and keep the other three under wraps to stop it from drying out.

Put the machine on its widest setting and pass the pasta through the machine a minimum of 12 times, folding it in half each time. You will see that the pasta becomes firmer and pliable as you do this. If it is not then pass it through the machine again. Do not stint on this for if you do the pasta will develop holes when you try to make it thinner. Do not flour the pasta as this will alter the proportions and the pasta will not stick together when you come to make the tortelli

When you feel that the pasta is ready to make thinner start reducing the width of the rollers and pass through the machine to make a long thin length of pasta. This time there is no need to fold. I tend to go down to the last but one width and pass it through the machine twice at this thickness. That's about right on my machine but you can experiment with yours. Not all pasta machines are the same.

I am lucky enough to own a ravioli tray, see photo, which I line with pasta, fill and cover with another sheet of pasta. I then press it down and the tray will put the cutting lines in the pasta.If you have not floured the pasta surface you will have no trouble getting the pasta to stick. There will be no need to use egg to make the pasta stick. That is a faff invented by TV cook. No one in Italy does it. I speak with no authority at all except that of having watched my mother and aunts make this sort of thing so very often.
If you are clever you can press the pasta down with the rolling pin that comes with the tray but I can never seem to be able to do this so I turn it out onto a floured surface and I cut it out along the lines with my pasta wheel. I then transfer the tortelli to a floured surface, this stops them sticking, and get on with the next lot.

To cook the pasta
Put about 3 litres of salted water in a large pan and bring to a rolling boil. Throw in about half of the tortelli. It is not good to overfill the pan. Cook for about 5 mins until the pasta is cooked. Do not fall for the UK rubbish of 1 minute as there is a double thickness of pasta on the join and this takes time to cook.. Try one and see what you think. If it is cooked to your liking strain well and eat, if not cook for another minute. Keep these warm while you cook the rest.

To serve brush with melted butter and sprinkle generously with grated Parmesan cheese. About 100g will be enough betweent eh 4 servings. Do not use flaked cheese, these tortelli need the cheese to come into contact with the pasta. Enjoy.

Saturday, 11 August 2007

Sausage and Beans

Today I decided to make my husband's favourite supper dish: borlotti con salsicia, or sausage and beans. This is no hardship as it's also one of mine. As much as I like fine dining I also like good hearty food and this dish certainly is that.I started by going down to the Orto to pick the beans which as you can imagine are plentiful here in Italy in August. They then have to be shelled and cooked. Don't ask me how many per person as it depends on your appetite. What I tend to do is pile them on a plate. If they look about right I go with that.

Put the beans in a pan or pressure cooker if you want to be quicker with a stick of celery, a fresh tomato, an onion, halved,and a carrot.Do not put in any salt at this point as it will toughen the skins. Cook until starting to go soft. In the pressure cooker this tends to be about 5 minutes but be careful. I am not too sure how long they take in a pan as I never cook them that way. It also depends on the age of he bean. Fresh from the garden they will probably cook quicker than if they have been hanging about in a supermarket stall.Try tham after about 30 mins.
Cook until almost but ot quite soft.

Now cut the sausage into rounds. I used salamini sausages as they are my favourites. If you use lugnaega sausage cut into 6cm lengths ie. about half a sausage.Fry the sausages until nice and golden brown, deglase the pan wit5h some white wine and add some stock cube. I like the Knorr, gusto classico but use your favourite.

If you would prefer you can cook the lot in a pressure cooker. Just start by frying the onions and then add the sliced sausage and when they are brown add the wine. Add the other ingredients and enough water to cover and cook on high for about 5 mins. easy but not quite as refined as cooking separately.

Another thought! Cut down the cooking by using a can of beans. You cook the sausages as outlined above but only add the beans when the sausages are throughly cooked. Not as good as fresh beans but if you are in a hurry it will do. This is a modern day Nonna giving you instructions after all.