h1

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 needed to take a shortcut so I 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 in Italy’s most successful cookbook, Silver Spoon, they are fried, then strangely spread 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: flour before frying, then a final topping of 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 of whether 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, it’s unbelievably good, and the last words go to Sophia: ‘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
h1

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. 

h1

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.

h1

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’.  
h1

Very Inspiring Blogger

November 25, 2014

I love the smell of an award in the morning …

Kodak

No, not that one. THIS one

BloggerAward

There’s nothing that can make up for a bad cup of coffee but sometimes it can at least be forgotten by a pleasant distraction.

Fellow blogger Colin Bisset has nominated me for a Very Inspiring Blogger Award. Che bella sorpresa, thanks so much. Writer/broadcaster Colin has a lovely blog where he blends his love of words with his love of design. We bonded over a post I wrote about my preferred coffee-making method and I’m thrilled he admits I changed his coffee habit.

Awards are hard-won, and there’s a little housekeeping to do first. I have to abide by the rules of this game by:

  • Thanking and linking to the person who nominated me
  • Listing the rules and displaying the award
  • Sharing seven facts about myself
  • Nominating 15 other blogs I enjoy, then commenting on their posts to let them know I’ve nominated them

Here goes:

  1. I was named after the main character in the 1944 romance novel Forever Amber. My mother saw the film in Italy years later and loved the name (which is Ambra in Italian)
  2. Raw onion is my enemy. Apart from giving me tears so ferocious I need a towel to mop my face, I hate the taste, the after-taste and the lingering taste the day after
  3. I have adopted the neighbourhood cat lady as my mentor and hope to become just as eccentric
  4. I badly need (swimming) stroke correction
  5. I worship at the alter of choreographer Bob Fosse (especially The Pajama Game, Sweet Charity, Chicago and Cabaret)
  6. I learnt to dance salsa in 1999, perfected it in Cuba in 2000 and didn’t stop dancing until 2007. Boy, was I tired.
  7. I’m a fairly decent cook but Asian stir fries defeat me

But enough about me. This is the business of sharing, and these are the blogs I like to read (no particular order):

Bizzy Lizzy’s Good Things – A collection of recipes, essays, food news and reviews

The Food Sage – All things gastronomic by food writer/restaurant reviewer Rachel Lebihan

Gherkins and Tomatoes – A blog about the universal language of food

Garden Drum – Plants, gardening, edibles, garden design, pets, wildlife, travel

Paradisus Garden Lovers – Garden inspiration and advice from designer Peter Nixon

Silver Screen Suppers – The wacky world of film star dining (featuring a lot of Vincent Price)

Venice: I am not Making this Up – Journalist Erla Zwingle’s wry take on life in Venice

Jovina Cooks Italian – Home-cooked Italian meals with emphasis on regional specialities

Italy on my Mind – Comprehensive ‘how-to’ recipes for elegant Italian dishes

On Food and Film – Hyperbolic ruminations on food and film

Skiourophilia – Covetable bits’n’pieces and vintage wares

Curnblog – Film reviews, interviews, opinions and interesting perspectives

Hollywood Essays – Behind-the-scenes stories and photos of Louis B. Mayer’s early Hollywood

Good Morning Trieste – Food, art, photos from my p.o.b. – Trieste

Thanks again Colin for the nomination – and the distraction.

h1

Roasting Coffee: Don’t Try this at Home

October 31, 2014

My recent experiment with growing coffee has been so successful, I now have a huge crop of organically grown beans. But the boast is in the roast.

Last month on the blog I showed off my Seven Stages of Coffee infographic. I had nurtured the plant, harvested the ripe red cherries, squeezed the green beans from the fruit, soaked the beans for two days, removed the mucilage and dried them. But the roasting process has had mixed results, and while the coffee is drinkable, it’s not quite there yet. Stovetop pan roasting produced unevenly scorched beans: oven roasting nearly required a visit from the fire brigade. (Friends have tried a popcorn maker with good results. I’m quite worried that they had such a device in the first place, but that’s for me to fret over.)

Until I perfect the roast, what am I meant to do with a large quantity of magnificently burnt ground coffee? Not much as it turns out. I found a ’27 Household Uses for Coffee’ site that suggested using the grounds for scouring pots, deodorising the fridge and disguising furniture scratches.

I was also inspired to make coffee art.

Coffee Art

 

But apart from coffee-flavoured cakes or desserts involving custard, cream or Mascarpone, there’s a dearth of savoury recipes. I found a few spicy coffee rubs for meat and if I wanted to brew coffee-flavoured beer, I could try to compete with S***bucks’ brand new menu item. Or I could add two spoons of butter to a cup of coffee to make it ‘Bulletproof’– which according to Paleo diet devotees, will “make me experience a kind of mental clarity and focus that is hard to express in words”. Quite.

Then I hit pay dirt. I found a recipe for one of my all-time favourite dishes: French Onion Soup. This one included coffee. And stout.

It’s a rich, dark, complex soup and the aftertaste has a caramel/coffee flavour. You can do as I did and serve it in a cappuccino cup. Seems logical really. But I needed three cupfuls.

French Onion Soup with coffee

To give the soup an Italian flavour (essential for this Italian-centric blog), I substituted the Gruyère with Fontina, a fairly strong, semi-soft cow’s milk cheese that melts beautifully.

The recipe for the French Onion Soup with Coffee comes via the Good Food Awards from Food52, one of my favourite sites.

If I don’t find any more recipes for savoury coffee dishes, I might have to try something sweet. I fancy a Burnt Coffee Semifreddo (with apologies to Oz restaurateur/food manufacturer Maggie Beer and her Burnt Fig Ice-cream).

h1

Growing Coffee: a backyard job

September 30, 2014
growing coffee at home
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 151 other followers

%d bloggers like this: