Borlotti. Pretty, good beans

November 24, 2015

As a child, you were most likely told to not play with your food. As an adult, I can’t think of a better excuse to procrastinate.

Fresh borlotti beans are wondrous things. They not only taste good, they are gorgeous to look at. As if their magenta-streaked pods aren’t attractive enough, the beans inside give you a double dose of colour. Pity then that they turn light, muddy brown when cooked. But before they changed to drab, I wanted to capture them and test my rusty watercolour skills. The result is not a Caravaggio, but I’ve got plenty of time …

borlotti beans in shells


This season – like all good Italians – I’ve made the most of them in salads, stews, dips and the popular soup pasta e fagioli – or as Dean Martin called it in the song That’s Amore: ‘pasta fazool’. They’re usually late summer to late autumn eating but I found some last week and I wasn’t going to query where they came from – they looked fresh so I snapped them up. 

Trawling online sites for borlotti bean inspiration, I found a new way with them. If you don’t like anchovies, look away now! The recipe is called Fagioli alla veneta and is a tasty cold salad from the Veneto region in north-eastern Italy. (It’s translated into wonky English but still understandable.)

I love shelling fresh borlotti beans, but if you prefer to buy them ready to use, they are available at selected greengrocers in containers and marketed as ‘edible gems’. That name was a good enough reason for me to play around with them post-shelling. Here’s the result: no strings attached!


borlotti bean necklace


Sydney-based restaurateur Steve Manfredi also does a nice dish of braised borlotti with tomato, celery hearts and oregano.






You made risotto with WHAAAT?

October 12, 2015

Another filler in between proper posts, this time for a damn tasty orzotto* developed for my now regular (almost) healthy recipe contribution to the NRMA’s ‘Living Well Navigator’. Give it a go, it’s not bad.



Orzotto made from pearl barley








Meanwhile, houseguest cat is happy to wait by the cooktop if it means wolfing down some risotto with extra pancetta. At your service, sir.


Ginger cat










* Orzotto is a portmanteau of risotto and orzo, the Italian word for barley. The dish is popular in the Friuli Venezia-Giulia region of north-eastern Italy.


Everything but the strudel

July 22, 2015

Necessity is the mother of invention, so when you haven’t blogged for a while, a story about mothers and food seems apt.


Not strictly a blog post

More a link

To a story on my regular contributors’ page at Living Well Navigator’s site

With a recipe to boot

Which is unusual for me

Consider it a bonus

Just add Italian liqueur


Baked Apples with a Twist



Watercolour apples by Ambra Sancin

Winter Apples, Ambra Sancin, c. 1981



NUTELLA: World’s favourite bread spread

June 2, 2015

I’m not a big consumer of the world’s most popular chocolate and hazelnut spread – preferring solid goodness like Baci or Ritter Sport, but I’m concerned about the future of NUTELLA and its devotees.

Baci chocolatesRitter Sport chocolate

This timeline shows recent disturbing facts. Perhaps the beginning of No-tella?

1946 – Italian pastry maker Pietro Ferrero creates a solid chocolate loaf, adding locally grown hazelnuts as an extender due to the short supply of cocoa post World War 11. Children decide it’s a great breakfast treat with bread.

1951 – Now a cream consistency, Supercrema Gianduja is a big hit with children when shopkeepers encourage them to visit their stores bearing slices of bread to be topped with the spread. This becomes known as ‘The Smearing’.

1964 – Re-branded as ‘Nutella’ (pronounced ‘Nootella’) by the founder’s son Michele Ferrero, the spread spreads outside Italy, becoming a favourite with French and Spanish children. My parents however offer me a chocolate bar in a buttered sandwich.

1973 – The Italian film Bread and Chocolate is released. The bittersweet story about an Italian immigrant seeking work in Switzerland includes an outdoor scene where main protagonist Nino Manfredi bites into a bread roll filled with a chocolate bar. The crunching noise is so loud it stops the scene’s string quartet mid sonata.

1978 – Manufacture begins in Australia at Lithgow, about 140 kms from Sydney.

1983 – I discover Nutella and cream cheese sandwiches while studying in Florence.

2007 – Chocolate/hazelnut spread aficionado invents ‘World Nutella Day’ on 5 February.

2013 – Chocolate/hazelnut spread aficionado receives a cease-and-desist order from Ferrero-Rocher who claims their permission was not sought to officially celebrate the spread globally. Over 46,000 social media followers express outrage.

2014 – Nutella®, now available in approximately 160 countries, turns 50.

2014 – Unseasonal weather in Turkey, the world’s leading hazelnut exporter, creates a global shortage. My idea (in a previous post) of combining smashed sugared almonds with chocolate to make almond bark seems inspired.

2014 – Warnings issued of a future global cocoa crisis due to crop failure, disease and adding chocolate to EVERYTHING including gin, vodka and potato crisps.

2015 – Michele Ferrero – owner of the Nutella empire and the richest man in Italy – dies aged 89, with rumours his son is not so interested in the business and takeovers could follow.

2015 – French court bans parents from naming their baby daughters “Nutella” after judge rules “it’s not in the best interest of a child because of the risk of abuse.”

2015 – A friend (let’s call him Gus) announces he’s giving up Nutella because of the nasties it contains, including palm oil, vanillin (MSG) and soy lecithin.

2015 – I hear about a healthy, organic alternative called Nocciolata but it’s not available in Australia. Still wanting a sugar fix, I buy a breadstick and chocolate variation instead called Nutella & GO. Close examination of ingredients list reveals breadsticks contain palm oil.

Nutella & GO

If you love Nutella but want something healthier, try David Leibovitz’s recipe. For an adults-only version, do what renowned Spanish chef Ferran Adria does – add salt and an olive oil drizzle to melted chocolate on a bread roll. Or add it to cream cheese in a toasted sandwich.

Start stockpiling now!


When Only Polenta Will Do

April 30, 2015

The ‘wooden plank/roof tile in place of the dinner plate’ fad has been around for a while, so I thought it safe to venture out into the wide world of inner Sydney pub bistros to test if chefs had done away with it. Not yet it seems.

I’ve eaten croissants, BLTs, toasties, salads and other foods plonked on non-plates. I’ve chased an undercooked egg oozing from a hamburger bun around a bit of treated pine. But after being served a steak with pepper sauce on a wooden board, I’m done. Do you realise how stressful it is to bolt down your meat before the pepper sauce finds its way to the edge of the board and drips onto the table? And the timber shards the serrated knife edge leaves behind aren’t much fun.

polenta illustration

There are times when plates are impractical. As an Italian-Australian growing up on home-cooked polenta I can attest to the tradition of pouring cooked polenta from the pot onto a wooden board, where it doesn’t spread too much. My father would cut it into slices with a taut wire (Jamie Oliver uses dental floss but I won’t go there) and serve it on plates with accompaniments from our Friuli-Venezia Giulia region. We’d have either a brodetto di pesce (cuttlefish or baccalà stew), sausage ragu or even braised borlotti beans.

There are Italian regional variations of the dish and sometimes polenta is served flat on a monstrous wooden board and then topped with rich tomato sauce and meat pieces for everyone around the table to dig into. Diners slowly work their way into the centre of the dish, a forkful at a time. It’s rustic eating and sounds like fun in the privacy of your own home.

I’m seriously thinking of asking for my next café steak/hamburger/anything with a runny sauce to be served on a dinner plate. As a paying customer, I think that’s fair.

While I wait for this trend to pass, I’ll enjoy following @WeWantPlates a tweeter who crusades against “serving food on bits of wood and roof tiles, jam-jar drinks and chips in mugs.” Thirty-six thousand followers feel their pain.

Image: from ‘Friuli e Trieste in Bocca’ by Manuela Busetti.


Eggplant Parmigiana: Sophia’s Choice

March 31, 2015

When I heard Sophia Loren was visiting Australia in April as the guest of honour for a gala fundraiser, I immediately went shopping. For eggplants.

She was famously quoted as saying, “Spaghetti can be eaten most successfully if you inhale it like a vacuum cleaner” and “Everything you see I owe to spaghetti” but to me, she’s all eggplant. She claims to know at least a dozen ways to cook them, courtesy of her grandmother. Now that’s impressive.

Italian actress Sophia Loren

I could almost taste the eggplant/aubergine parmigiana (aka melanzane alla parmigiana) I was about to make. It’s a time-consuming dish, with successive layers of pre-cooked, thin eggplant slices, tomato sauce and two types of cheese: meltable (usually mozzarella) and parmesan.

I was short of time and dusted the eggplant slices with flour – without egging and crumbing them before frying. I’ve always done the three-way dust, dip and coat method and usually set aside a hefty amount of time to do it … like annual holidays. Does anyone else make it this way, or am I the only one with too much time on my hands?

In her 1971 cookbook Eat with Me (full of fabulous fashion as well as the world’s biggest wooden salad servers), Sophia just fries them. As does Marcella Hazan in her Classic Italian Cookbook. In Italian Food, Elizabeth David dusts them with flour before frying, and Italy’s most successful cookbook, Silver Spoon suggests frying, then spreading with beaten egg (making it a bit omelettey I think). And finally, Pellegrino Artusi in his Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well (published 1891) goes one better: flouring before frying, then topping with beaten egg, tomato sauce, one spoon of parmesan, two spoons of breadcrumbs.

eggplant watercolour

Ambra, circa 1980 – the ‘eggplant’ period

Then there’s the question: to peel or not to peel the eggplant. The peelers are in the minority, but still, peeling and discarding that gorgeous shiny purple skin is out of the question. It’s the essence of the vegetable.

Not to mention that without the skin, the eggplant slices just look like disappointed kitchen sponges.

Another curiosity is the dish’s name. Many people (including Jamie Oliver) think it’s a northern Italian dish and ‘parmigiana’ refers to the cheese or Parma, the city. But food historians think it’s from Sicily, where ‘palmigiana’ means shutters and describes the way the eggplant slices are overlapped. There are further theories that Sicilians have a problem pronouncing the “l” and it became ‘parmigiana’.

parmigianaEither way, Sophia gets the last word: ‘There are some vegetable dishes, ways of doing aubergines, pimientos, and so on, that sometimes fill me with an enthusiasm that I am unable to work up over the main course.”

Follow the step-by-step Parmigiana video recipe on the excellent Italian food site Giallo Zafferano

For non-Italian speakers, Italian American chef Lidia Bastianichs recipe is the closest I’ve found to the one I make.

Parmigiana photo by Joyosity

Another Bite of the Cherry

February 28, 2015

Cherry season is over in Australia, but it’s never too late for a rave.

It’s been a bumper season and I’ve had fun with red Bing cherries and white Royal Rainier cherries – and for the first time coffee cherries from my own tree. I’ve also grown cherry tomatoes, but that’s not such a happy story.

I’ve eaten them fresh, macerated them, folded them into a semifreddo, made cherry granita and added them to drinks.

I bought a heap of Royal Rainier cherries at Christmas and preserved them. They have an early, short season and I’m still enjoying the last jar, adding the cherries on top of gelato, sweetened ricotta or into a refreshing drink called a Cherry Muddler. I altered this Spiced Brandied Cherries recipe to half Brandy/half Solerno Blood Orange Liqueur to Italianise it and swapped the Bings for the Rainiers. One suggestion – buy a good cherry pipper. It saves all that hand-to-mouth business and the odd cracked tooth.

This is not the best photo of a jar of preserved cherries. 

Preserved White Cherries

So here’s something better.

Redheads in Jar

I snapped this odd display in a Sydney CBD optometrist’s window and have been dying to use it ever since. Strangely appealing I think.

Italy loves its preserved cherries. The Fabbri brand, founded in 1905 near Bologna as a distillery and still family-owned, is going strong selling its Amarena cherries in syrup (in the unmistakeable blue and white ceramic jars) world-wide.

The use of cherries on household furnishings and dress fabrics was popular years ago, but not so much these days. If you’re my vintage you probably had a frock or blouse with cherries on it. Unless you’re a male. Here’s proof that Christmas is cherry celebration time: a lovely dress made by my mother with cherries on the bodice. Hands off, Santa!AmbraXmas

It’s the last day of summer, and I’m hot and plan to cool off with this Cherry Muddler. So should you.

Cherry Muddler

You might also like this Maraschino Cherries recipe and blog post from the archives. 


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