I love Italian food. Perhaps it’s because my great-great grandfather came from the Piedmont area, perhaps I just love to eat. It’s hard to select particular dishes from the Italian repertoire as their cooking is incredibly regionalized so don’t be surprised if you don’t find one of your favorite dishes in this piece. It would take a book to do it proper justice.
A quick history: European cooking originated in Italy during the Renaissance, then somewhat transported itself to France with Catherine de Medici in 1553 when she married the future king of France (and brought with her the fork, and some say, the ice-cream, and several tons of sophistication). While France built upon the Italian know-how, developing a highly codified cuisine, the Italians continued on in the court and family fashion, allowing improvisation and regional variations to abound. I shouldn’t say this too loud, my French relatives might disown me for this. But, there it is: even though Italy has experienced many political upheavals throughout its history, Italian cuisine reigned supreme from the end of the Middle Ages to the 17th century and slowly metamorphosed into a new kind of modern, healthy cooking, light, pure, but not austere in the least, and rather intense. Or let me put it this way: if given a choice of retiring in either the south of France or the north of Italy, I’d go to Rapallo in a flash, on coast of Liguria and live happily ever after. If you are going to cook Italian make sure you have a good bottle of olive oil on hand. The good stuff.
This dish is perhaps the quintessential Italian appetizer: Spaghetti Marinara. First a quick word on the kind of dry pasta you should use for this dish (and any other pasta dish for that matter): the higher the protein in the pasta the better the pasta is. The pasta quality is just as important as the sauce you put on it. The better the quality of wheat the better the pasta, the better the final recipe, so remember that fact as well: hard grain pasta is the best, the packet should read: Grano Dura. If you find a Pasta with 13 percent protein then you have a very good product, 12 percent is good, 11 percent or under is classed as cheaper and inferior pasta and will go too soft when cooking. Good Pasta must remain firm after cooking! This is for 4 to 6 persons.
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, 2 small red onions, diced, 2 pounds of fresh tomatoes (try not using canned tomatoes for this dish), peeled and diced, a small handful of fresh thyme (dried ok), 2 tbsp tomato puree, a hint of brown sugar, salt & cracked pepper to taste, half a pint of dry white wine, 8 garlic cloves, finely minced, a small bunch of parsley, chopped up, and the sea-food: buy the freshest firm flesh fillet you can find (monkfish, halibut, red snapper, mahimahi, cod – though cod is being depleted, so best to avoid. Always check this EDF site to check for appropriate, sustainable seafood). You’ll need roughly half a kilo (1 pound approx.) of fish, cut into 1 inch chunks, 2 pounds of mixed shellfish (mussels, scallops, calamari (squid), 300 gr of cooked & shelled shrimps and if you feel a little rich, get a small cooked lobster which you cut into medallions, roughly the same size as the fish fillets. Oh, and don’t forget the pasta! A 500 gr packet should do the trick.
In a large skillet, heat the olive oil, add the onions, cook them a little, then the garlic, tomatoes and thyme over low heat. Add the tomato puree and the sugar, stir in the wine, and cook briskly for 15 minutes or so. Reduce the heat and add the fish chunks, the parsley, stir carefully, then add the mussels and the scallops, stir carefully still, the mussels should be opened up, add the scallops and the squid, then the lobster or shrimps or both, and season to your liking.
As the Marinara cooks, bring lots of salted water to the boil (I always add a little olive oil to the water, it will make the pasta non-sticky) and cook according to the instructions on the packet minus one minute. Drain and toss the seafood sauce in, and serve immediately with some crusty bread and an earthy red.
This lemony chicken dish is a quick and easy way to give yourself a nice treat on any night, it’s next to nothing in calories and if you serve it up with some steamed broccoli & cauliflower florets, it’s all good. For 4 persons you’ll need:
4 chicken breasts pounded thin, a little flour spread on a plate for dredging, 2 tablespoons of olive oil, a large knob of butter, a large glass of dry white wine, juice of 2 lemons, half a pint of chicken stock, a pinch of fresh lemon thyme and salt & pepper to taste.
Dredge each chicken breast in flour to coat and shake off excess. Heat oil in a large sauté pan set on medium heat. Place chicken breasts in pan and cook until lightly browned on both sides, about 2-3 minutes for each side. Drain the oil and add butter, wine, lemon, thyme, capers and salt & pepper. Cook for 2 or 3 minutes. Add the broth and cook until the liquid is reduced by half, 5 to 6 minutes (sprinkle a little flour in when it starts boiling, use a whisk to thicken.) Transfer the chicken breasts to serving dishes, top it up with a generous amount of sauce and make sure you have some crusty bread on hand.
I remember driving through the Tuscan hills many years ago looking for a restaurant we had heard of and got lost. We finally made it to an old farmhouse type of eatery and I went inside to see if they had a table for the four of us. The man who greeted me said that dinner wasn’t ready (it was five in the afternoon or thereabouts) but asked us inside and promptly materialized with a large wooden board laden with charcuterie, bread and assorted cheese goodies. And two bottles of local wine. It would have been more than enough to satisfy us. He informed us that the main dish would be ready in an hour. Well, it was one of the tastiest leg of lamb I have ever eaten in memory. I asked for the recipe and here it is.
This is for 6 to 8 persons. So you’ll need a leg of lamb weighing roughly 2 kg (4 pounds), 6 garlic cloves cut into thin slices, 4 sprigs fresh rosemary, 3 tbsp olive oil, 2 onions, finely chopped, 1 kg fresh tomatoes, (if you can get a bottle – 1 liter – Passata, it’s as good), 2 tbsp brown sugar, 1 pint of dry white wine.
Rub the meat all over with salt and cracked pepper. Cut the garlic cloves into thin slivers and divide the rosemary into little sprigs. Insert a sharp pointed knife into the lamb and insert a piece of garlic and a sprig of rosemary into the cut. Repeat all over the meat. Heat the oil in a flameproof casserole and fry the lamb, turning frequently, until lightly browned. Add the onions and fry for a minute, then press the tomatoes and their liquid through a coarse sieve into a pan. Add the sugar and the wine, bring to the boil and season to taste. Cover the pan tightly and simmer very gently for about 2 hours or until the lamb is tender, turning 2 or 3 times. Add extra water if necessary. Transfer the lamb to a hot serving dish. Skim any surface fat from the liquid and boil rapidly, uncovered, until reduced to a rough textured sauce. Meanwhile, prepare the following root vegetables to roast for 1 hour before the end of the cooking time:
1 kg carrots and parsnips, peeled and quartered length-ways, 1 kg new baby potatoes, scrubbed and cut in 2 if too big, 250 gr baby onions, peeled (or larger onions, peeled and quartered), 4tsp olive oil, 10 cloves garlic, crushed, not peeled, salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Bake at 350 for close to an hour. You can add other goodies to your roasted vegetables, like eggplants, bell peppers etc…
One cannot talk about Italian food without mentioning their vast array of cheeses. I have several favorites. Pecorino reigns supreme in my book as does Fontina, and of course Parmigiano Regiano. There are lots of others and it would take another diary to do them justice.
I tend to eat too much bread and I have to blame the Italians for their wonderful ciabatta. Don’t be put off by making bread, this recipe is easy peasy:
1 tsp easy blend yeast
150g/5oz unbleached strong white flour
pinch of salt
4 tblsp olive oil
6 fl oz warm water
Put all ingredients in a food processor, mix until formed into a smooth, thick batter. Cover and leave in a warm place for about two hours until the dough is well risen. Tip dough into greased, loaf tin and leave to rise for another 30 minutes. Do not knock back.
Heat oven to 475F. Sprinkle the dough with flour and cook for about 30 minutes or until lightly browned. The loaf should be about 1 inch high.
There are so many mouthwatering Italian desserts it’s difficult to choose from: cannolis, tiramisu, meringues, millefoglie , montebianchi, torte, crostate, tartufi, panne cotta, and so many others…and countless gelatos and sorbettos, it’s making me dizzy! So here’s a recipe for what people think is the king of desserts: tiramisu, a lovely concoction laced with a strong espresso and coffee liqueur. For six people you’ll need:
250g mascarpone cheese, 3 free-range eggs, 2 tablespoons of sugar,
1 packet Boudoir biscuits (ladyfingers) 1 cup of strong espresso (2 if you want to really feel it) 3 tablespoons of Amaretto, 25g good cocoa powder.
Separate the eggs, keeping two of the egg whites together and the third separately, then mix the 3 egg yolks with the sugar to form a cream, use your hand and a whisk, mix in the mascarpone cheese. Then beat two of the egg whites until stiff. Gently mix in the mascarpone/egg mixture with the egg whites; add the Amaretto and mix well. Dip the ladyfingers biscuits into the coffee and cover the bottom of your serving dish with them.
Add a layer of the cheese/egg cream then a second layer of biscuits (again dipping in coffee), and top with a layer of the cream mix.
Refrigerate for at least 6 hours (overnight is fine) and just before serving, cover with a layer of sieved cocoa.
Too difficult? Watch the YouTube video.
I could have written about my favorite, gnocchi, but I’ll leave that one for another post.