Archive for the ‘food writers/chefs’ Category

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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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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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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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Spanish Cuttlefish with Italian Attitude

November 27, 2013

 

Food writer/journalist Rachel Lebihan* wrote in the Australian Financial Review last month about her visit to ARZAK, San Sebastian’s Michelin three-star restaurant. She mentions going into the kitchen with chef Elena Arzak for a lesson cooking hake’s throat.

Reminded of my first accidental trip to San Sebastian in northern Spain in 1983, I promised her some anecdotes – and a tenuous Italian connection.

SanSebastianBar_2_2

After boarding a train in southern France, my travel companion and I set out to find the owner of the sweet trumpet notes wafting through the carriage. Californian musician Doug was heading to San Sebastian to join its new Basque National Orchestra and he made it sound appealing. The city wasn’t on our itinerary but two weeks later we were in Basque country.

On the way to our friend’s concert on the city’s outskirts we passed an inconsequential restaurant with killer fish fumes coming from the kitchen. We’d arrived too early for Spanish dinnertime but that didn’t stop me enquiring about the possibility of eating during siesta. A combination of no English on the restaurant owner’s part and bad Spanish on my part was getting us nowhere. Body language saved the day and we politely elbowed our way into the kitchen to taste test what was on offer.

Something dark, thick and shiny was bubbling in a large pot. Blacker than a Basque’s beret. The two plates of inky stew (chipirones en su tinta) delivered to us in the deserted dining room were exceptional. We ate the cuttlefish (which is more unctuous than squid or calamari) with chunks of bread washed down with the local Txakoli wine.

We enjoyed San Sebastian’s pinxtos bars, nightlife, food markets and beaches so much we stayed longer than intended, ditching yet another town for this privilege.

I’ve been back since 1983 and eaten fancier meals (including an 11-course extravaganza at the media launch of the 1997 San Sebastian Film Festival), but this adventure is the one that resonates. I’d be very keen to try the ‘taste before you dine’ idea here in Sydney. Hah! Imagine that … asking the chef if you can have a look-see into the pans he/she is rattling.

The Fish Stall, 16th century. Oil on canvas

Bartolomeo PASSEROTTI – The Fish Stall (late 1500s). The woman is questioning the fishmonger about the fish. As she should be.

Which brings me to this post’s Italian connection. Italians love their cuttlefish, and in the north they’re cooked as a stew with polenta (sepe in umido co la polenta or brodetto di seppie) but it’s not always as black as the Spanish version. Cuttlefish is not easy to find in Sydney and testing for freshness can be tricky. My mother used to ask the fishmonger for a poke of the flesh, testing for springiness and iridescence. Once cleaned at home, the interior chalky bone went straight to the budgie cage.

This luscious recipe for chipirones – or calamares – en su tinta is from Elizabeth Luard’s cookbook La Ina Book of Tapas’ and includes cleaning instructions. But beware. An industrial strength plastic apron is essential – cuttlefish ink is indelible.

Buen provecho. And buon appetito!

*Rachel Lebihan blogs at thefoodsage.com.au

Top image: R.Stacker

 

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Lurking in the Cupboard: Wooden Pestle, No Vessel

October 8, 2013

I found my mother’s wooden pestle for making tomato passata just after I heard Marcella Hazan died last month.

No longer used since my mother graduated to tinned Romas long ago, it had remained in her cupboard looking for a purpose. That trusty pestle had crushed thousands of cooked tomatoes through a sieve since my father had crafted it in the early 1960s. I wondered if it had ever doubled as something you slipped a sock over just before you were about to darn* it.  Utensil for making tomato passata

Tributes continue to flow for the 89-year-old revered author of six Italian cookbooks, including my favourite The Classic Italian Cookbook (1973). Marcella is credited with introducing the public in the U.S. and Britain to the techniques of traditional Italian cooking.

With an incredible repertoire to her name, it was a recipe for her simple Tomato Sauce 111 (sugo di pomodoro) that made her fans swoon. Maybe it was the unusual addition of butter rather than olive oil. Or that it’s so easy to make and the onion doesn’t require chopping and weeping.

I flicked through all my vintage and contemporary Italian cookbooks and none of the tomato sauces take butter during the cooking, just olive oil, so I’m curious to know how Marcella came to include it. And as I hadn’t made this sugo di pomodoro for a while I was interested to see if it was as buttery as I remembered.

I rarely make my own tomato passata these days but felt I had to make a batch for the sauce in honour of Marcella’s passing. And anyway, the wooden pestle was winking at me.

Four ingredients and three-quarters of an hour later we sat down to a satisfying – and buttery – penne al pomodoro. But I confess I added some torn basil leaves to the finished product.

I’m looking forward to next February’s Tomato Festival at the Botanic Gardens in Sydney as I hear they’ll be running a Tomato Sauce Challenge. Have pestle will crush!

[* In case any young folk are reading this, the Oxford Dictionary defines ‘darn’ as a verb meaning to mend (a hole in knitted material) by interweaving yarn with a needle.]

Related post:  ‘As the Tomato said to the Actress’ 

You might also like this tomato sauce recipe on the Italian Language Blog

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THAT OLD CHESTNUT

May 15, 2013

If ‘that old chestnut’ is used often enough, doesn’t the idiom itself become an old chestnut?

Uncooked chestnuts

Let’s make the collective noun a VENEER of chestnuts

Never mind, I’m marking autumn and the cooler weather by eating record numbers of chestnuts. I can’t resist the sweet, nutty flavour and smooth floury texture. They’re low in calories and high in Vitamin C, and the bonus is the shell’s beautiful faux wood veneer pattern.

My own ‘old chestnut’ is 24 years old and lives happily in a winter coat pocket in my wardrobe. I bought the purple coat for my father’s funeral in Italy in December 1989 and after buying hot roasted chestnuts the same day from a street vendor, I saved the last chestnut in the paper cone and put it in my pocket. It’s been there ever since. I haven’t worn the coat for many years but occasionally put my hand in the pocket just to touch the smooth chestnut.

Various Italian community groups in Australia celebrate what was once known as “poor man’s food” with harvest events, and I was pleased to see Sydney restaurateur Stefano Manfredi recently host a chestnut and wine sampling outside his Balla restaurant. He tells me he’s the Ambassador for Chestnuts Australia and conducts masterclasses at Myrtleford, NE Victoria where they’re mostly grown.

I roast them under the griller (after scoring the shell with a cross to prevent explosions) and eat them neat, but also like them in cakes and desserts especially the traditional Tuscan cake made with chestnut flour, nuts and rosemary – Castagnaccio. DO NOT under any circumstances confuse them with ‘horse chestnuts’ which are bitter, mildly poisonous and sound like something that Colonel Potter from the TV series MASH would splutter loudly.

chestnut2

Chestnut in all its natural glory. Was it also a Muppet character?

Let’s embrace chestnuts in Australia. Why not organise a sing-a-long next Christmas of Nat King Cole’s famous Christmas Song that begins ‘Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire …’

Help spread the word. And don’t forget to SHARE, lest the First Witch in Macbeth (Act 1, Scene 1) takes revenge again and casts an evil spell on you.

Nigella Lawson does a great chocolate chestnut refrigerator cake   

And for chestnuts with a kick, try this: Chilli Spiced Roasted Chestnuts via Not Quite Nigella 

PS. I’ve  just discovered a delicious Mario Batali recipe for Chestnut Crepes

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