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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

https://www.mynrma.com.au/living-well-navigator/supported-living/making-the-most-of-winter-apples.htm

 

Watercolour apples by Ambra Sancin

Winter Apples, Ambra Sancin, c. 1981

 

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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 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. Parents 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 a scene where main protagonist Nino Manfredi bites into a bread roll filled with a chocolate bar. The crunching noise is so loud it stops a string quartet in its tracks.

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 claim their permission was not sought. Over 46,000 social media followers express outrage.

2014 – Nutella®, now available in around 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 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. Disappointed but wanting a sugar fix, I buy a bread and chocolate variation instead called Nutella & GO. I’m even more disappointed when I read the 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 the snack. Or add it to cream cheese in a toasted sandwich.

Start stockpiling now!

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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.

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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
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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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Home-groan Tomatoes: A Labour of Love

January 31, 2015

As a tomato grower, I’m a great root vegetable producer. More on that later.

I’d never bothered growing tomatoes, but after last year’s Sydney Tomato Festival I changed my mind. It was taste-testing the Russian Black Krim and other unusual varieties that got me interested.

I started small, buying three cherry tomato plants (Lady Bug or Sweet Bite?) as I’d heard they don’t attract as many pests or diseases as larger varieties.

I planted them in my mother’s garden bed and watched them grow. On recent visits two-three times per week, I’d touch the parched soil that had gone un-watered for days. “Have you been watering the tomatoes?” “Oh yes of course” she’d answer. Unconvinced, I’d give them a good soaking anyway. 

The first harvest produced seven tiny tomatoes – four with split skins. What could I do with them? Make a sauce for three strands of spaghetti? Chop them up for one small piece of bruschetta? Wizz them into a thimble-full of Bloody Mary?

red cherry tomatoes

I decided on a lunch salad, cutting them in half and dressing them with oil, vinegar, salt and basil and tumbling them into the smallest bowl available.

On the next visit, my mother had already picked seven tiny tomatoes – five with split skins. Just as well then, that I’d bought a punnet of bigger, more attractive-looking relatives that I added to the bowl to plump up the lunch.

I reflected on the growing regime: bringing them home from the markets, making space in the garden bed, preparing the soil, planting and then feeding, watering and staking them. And checking for pests. I calculated that each meal from the crop has cost about $95.

But all’s not lost. I found a recipe I’d archived from the Italian Notes site for pickled green tomatoes (pomodorini verdi sott’aceto). Picking them unripened solves the problem of eating ugly, split fruit with the seeds erupting from the flesh like unwanted intestines.

However, I think my future as a vegetable grower rests with the sweet potato. Not very Italian, I know, but we have a mystery plant that has grown on its own, without love, and produces a bumper crop of sweet potatoes each year. No work required. Last year’s harvest included a potato so big I had to share half with the neighbours. The other half went to a friend who made a sweet potato pie for a dinner party.

biggest sweet potato

I’m really quite happy to let other people be tomato growers. I think La Gina has the right idea.

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Lurking in the Cupboard: Rosso Antico, the Prince of Aperitifs

December 31, 2014

If there’s one thing nicer than an Italian aperitif, it’s a good aperitif glass. Lucky then that the ‘curiosities’ section of my mother’s sideboard was able to deliver the goods.

Neatly hidden from view were two remaining glasses from her original Rosso Antico set of eight. I’d borrowed them long ago to use in an ironic 1960s-70s kind of way, put them back and forgotten about them.

Rosso Antico glasses

Rosso Antico (Ancient red) was invented in Italy in 1962 and soon became the aperitif of choice. It was known as ‘the prince of aperitifs’ and featured heavily in promotional segments of popular Italian TV sketch show Carosello.* Here in Australia, Italian Australians took to it with gusto.

An aromatised wine – with 32 herbs including sage, rosemary and thyme (yes really, but no parsley) – Rosso Antico is deep ruby red and bittersweet, with an aftertaste of peel and spices. In some circles it was considered (cruelly I think) the poor cousin of other Italian aperitifs like Campari or Aperol but was often substituted in drinks where they were used.

Back then, the glasses with the Rosso Antico moniker were nearly always promotional giveaways. One glass was included in a fancy box with each bottle purchase, so depending on how much you entertained, you either built up a set of eight very quickly or never. My parents’ circle of friends loved it at dinner parties served straight up, with a slice of orange or soda water.

I associate the trends of the time with it: wide ties and sideburns for the men, palazzo pants and big hair for the ladies and a look of disdain on our teenage faces. We were, after all, just discovering Harvey Wallbangers.

Rosso AnticoRossoAnticoHead

After its initial popularity, it was withdrawn from sale in the late 1970s due to one of the ingredient’s perceived carcinogenic qualities. It re-surfaced, but I lost touch with it until I spied some recently in a Sydney bottle shop. It’s had a design makeover (I’m guessing) to entice people to substitute it for Campari in their Negronis. I’m pretty sure there are new, bigger promotional glasses too, but I prefer the originals. All related advertising at the time carried the words: ‘‘Rosso Antico’ – l’aperitivo che si beve in coppa” meaning the aperitif should be drunk in ‘coupe” glasses, similar in shape to the saucer glasses preferred for champagne during the swinging ’60s. The glasses, with their shallow bowls on top of slender stems are now only used for cocktails, so the Rosso Antico marketers will have had to come up with a new tagline.

Aperitifs done and dusted, I’ve also put the glasses to good use for the leftover Christmas cherry granita.

CherryGranita2

The Gelato Messina Cookbook published in late 2013 includes a recipe for Rosso Antico and Marmalade gelato. So it’s definitely trending.

PS – For Italian speakers, you might enjoy this 1974 Rosso Antico animated advertisement inspired by the fairytale ‘The Princess in the Well’.  
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