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Top 10 Italian food-related experiences

December 22, 2015

It’s the time of year when ‘Top 10 Lists’ appear everywhere – for books, films, music. I’ve been reminiscing and came up with my best Italian food-related memories for 2015 (in no particular order):

. Discovering a great lunch spot while waiting two hours for my GP’s appointment. The Italian Bar in inner city Sydney is run by two Italian ex-DJ brothers who offer great pizza, antipasti and killer drinks.

Italian Bar Paddington

. Finding Elizabeth David’s Italian Cooking in a second-hand bookshop. First published in 1954, it’s a classic and her prose is good reading even before attempting the recipes.

. Celebrating offal. Trippa alla Romana (Roman style tripe) served at a now defunct suburban restaurant became a winter favourite. Tomatoey, saucy and great while it lasted.

. Experimenting with a deconstructed peperonata. Yes, I took liberties and added eggplant, but the separately oven-cooked ingredients doused with vinaigrette hits the spot.

Italian peperonata

. Closely observing fruit & veg forms while creating a watercolour still life. Borlotti beans in their shells, eggplants, artichokes, fennel, celeriac all got the treatment.

. Coming to the conclusion that the strawberry granita at Sydney’s Cremeria de Luca is almost as good as their coffee granita. And DON’T hold the panna (cream).

. Always ordering the ham and fior di latte mini brioche at Bar Sport in Sydney’s inner west. Small, delicious and everything you want in a mid-morning snack.

Ham and cheese brioche

. Getting my fill of comfort food by copying the restaurant scene in Vittorio de Sica’s film Bicycle Thieves where father and son order a Mozzarella in Carozza (fried mozzarella sandwich).  

. Growing my own wonderful green Lombardo chillies and flash-frying them in oil, garlic and salt. Nothing else required.

Italian green chillies

. Admitting frozen vegetables aren’t always the enemy. The next best things to fresh broad beans are the frozen variety. I concocted a broad bean salad recipe for the NRMA’s Living Well Navigator site 

 

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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

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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.

 

 

 

 

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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.

https://www.mynrma.com.au/living-well-navigator/health-wellbeing/barley-risotto-with-pancetta-and-fresh-herbs.htm

 

Orzotto made from pearl barley

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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

 

 

 

 

 

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* 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.

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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 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!

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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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