Archive for the ‘Italian cuisine’ Category

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Cruising for some codfish

October 25, 2016

Creamed salt cod is one of those dishes that can take me somewhere else.

Known as ‘baccalà mantecato’ in Italian, it’s a specialty of Venice and although complex in flavour, uses minimal ingredients: salt cod, garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper and (sometimes) milk. The success lies in adding olive oil slowly as if making mayonnaise while beating the hell out of the cooked fish. A codswallop of sorts.

A recent look through my shoebox of vintage family photos transported me back to a mid 1960s’ shipboard romance.

A family trip back to Italy by boat promised all the fun a gal could dream of if the brochures were to be believed. However, as a kid, my dating prospects were limited so I settled for a relationship with a reconstituted fish.

I was an adventurous eater and looked forward to the daily buffets aboard the Marconi, looking for favourite dishes among butter sculptures guaranteed to make Michelangelo weep. Dinners were dressy affairs and waiters served antipasto selections at our dining tables from oversized stainless steel trays.

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I switched between salami, mortadella and prosciutto, but the one constant was creamed salt cod. From Sydney to Genoa – over 23 days and 10 ports of call in southeast Asia, the middle East and finally Italy – I ate creamed salt cod. I then took a break for a few years, but every time I was downwind of it, our sea voyages came to mind.

The liners SS Guglielmo Marconi and SS Galileo Galilei were purpose-built in 1962 in my hometown Trieste to bring immigrants to Australia. The sister ships were furnished with elegant interiors and collected awards for their innovative design. Shipboard games were simple and included shuffleboard, quoits and horse races with 2-D timber animals that moved along a track on the throw of the dice. Crossing the equator was a big poolside occasion featuring egg and flour initiations of Equator-crossing virgins and wily old King Neptune looking on. Children were encouraged to learn folkdances of the countries visited during stopovers. Our teacher, a heavily accented Eastern European woman, drummed into us an Indian dance routine, because “tomorrow is Bombatom”. I asked my parents if Bombay was a war zone.

Not that I realised it at the time, but what better way is there than enjoying salt cod on a ship, celebrating the important trade of Basque fishermen 500 years ago.

The award-winning Cod: a Biography of the Fish that Changed the World (Mark Kurlansky, 1999) is next in line on my bedside table.

This baccalà mantecato recipe by Emiko Davies is great … try it with polenta or eat it as I did on the ship – on nice toasted bread. Piled high.


Image from ‘The Sea Herald’ – Marconi 1965

 

 

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The Spaghetti Test: a short story

May 15, 2016

It was never going to be a happy marriage: an Italian in strange surroundings, with no knowledge of the local language, dependent on an unknown woman whose cooking probably didn’t measure up to mamma’s.

When I started primary school as a five-year-old, I had about 11 words of English. It was 1960 and we had arrived as Italian migrants a few years earlier, my parents settling in Sydney’s inner-west and mixing with other non-Australians. We spoke Italian at home and we hadn’t yet bought a television, so there were no English distractions.

The first school day was traumatic. My mother cried when she dropped me off at the local public school after the two-kilometre walk from our house, hand-in-hand. She also cried on her way home and again when she collected me in the afternoon.

I can’t remember if I was anxious during those first weeks at school, but if I was, I put all my energies into grappling with the lunches my mother prepared. Mum’s sandwiches were stuffed with either salami or mortadella. If it was dad’s handiwork, it more than likely involved a sharp, smelly Italian cheese partnered with two or three black olives, de-pipped and halved.

There weren’t many other migrant children in my class, but kids being kids, they made rude noises when I reached for my lunch. I soon realised that if I wanted to fit in, the pathway to assimilation would be food. I’d tried to work out what was in my classmates’ sandwiches and learned the pale pink sliced meat was called devon and the dark brown, salty-smelling gloop was Vegemite. But I was more interested in the stubby noodles in the orange-coloured sauce that one girl brought in most days. It was a strange thing to put in a sandwich but I figured if an Australian kid at school could eat what an Italian kid ate at home, we could become soul mates.

SpaghettiEaters

Spaghetti eaters (Naples) by Giorgio Sommer circa 1886.

After a few months, I convinced my mother that I wanted to try something different for lunch and needed to place an order for the spaghetti sandwich. This was my first attempt at befriending the woman behind the tuck shop counter who I assumed cooked the pasta at home. She was very kind and only too pleased to let me try something familiar.

I could hardly wait for the sandwich to arrive. I salivated. I was finally going to be ‘one of them’. Bag opened, wax paper off, first bite completed.

“This can’t be right.” I tried again. “That woman has made a mistake. I ordered spaghetti.” I took a third, smaller bite of the overcooked pasta in the sickly, sweet, gluggy sauce and almost gagged. Should I be rude and spit it out? I hadn’t swallowed the other two pieces, so there was now a hefty ball of unwanted sandwich in my mouth soon to be deposited in the paper lunch bag.

My Australian classmates looked on and nodded when I asked if this really was spaghetti. Some corrected me and said it really was “psghetti”.

If I’d watched the tuck shop woman make my sandwich I’d have realised the pasta had come out of a tin and was scooped onto the buttered bread with a spoon. ‘Spaghetti’ and ‘spoon’ were never used in the same sentence in our Italian world. Years later I discovered that US miners introduced tinned spaghetti to Australia during the late 19th century gold rush and the nation had been enjoying it ever since, even daring to tip it onto a slice of toast for special occasions.

My mother asked about my new sandwich filling. I had to think fast: if I admitted it was inedible, it would be back to the smelly sandwiches; if I said I liked it, I’d have to keep ordering it.

I can’t remember how we reached a compromise. Maybe I convinced dad my schoolmates thought the black olives looked like cockroaches and it would reflect badly on mum’s housekeeping. Or that the mortadella would fester in a hot school case in the sun and upset my stomach. Either way, they relented and both these offending fillings were omitted from my lunchbox for a long while.

As my English improved, I gained confidence and learned to order sandwiches with egg, salad, raspberry jam and peanut butter.

But not before I was tempted by something called a ‘sausage roll’. I had visions of a crusty Italian roll with German mustard and a genuine continental frankfurter – just like my northern Italian parents, whose cooking was influenced by Austro-Hungarian heritage – served at home.

If testing the spaghetti sandwich had been a disappointment, this second experiment almost sent me running back to mum and dad’s problematic lunches. But soon after, our first television delivered me another challenge in the form of the 1960s’ American sitcom children’s specialty: the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I was a glutton for punishment.

(The Spaghetti Test was short-listed and commended in the 2015 Life Writing competition held annually by Melaleuca Blue Publishing. It’s included in an anthology of short stories titled Do Nuns Wear Knickers published in print and ebook form).

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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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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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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).

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Rise of the Vending Machine Pizza

August 31, 2014

The announcement two weeks ago that Australia’s first vending machine pizza was available in Sydney sent me into sampling mode.

Just as people remember their exact whereabouts during significant world events, I remember my first taste of homemade pizza: it was Italy, mid 1970s and my non-pizza eating parents and I had been invited to a special family lunch. By contrast, would my first taste of vending machine pizza this week in a stadium-sized shopping mall be memorable? 

Bracing myself for the bland surroundings of a food court, I instead imagined myself somewhere a little grittier. The opening scene of Saturday Night Fever came to mind. I couldn’t recreate 1977, nor request the Bee Gees, but my black pants and oxblood boots had me channelling John Travolta/Tony Manero strutting Brooklyn’s streets eating pizza.

Oxblood Boots

 

Giorgio Pompei, owner/chef of Pompei’s pizzeria/gelateria at Bondi Beach has invested considerable cash into perfecting what he describes as “the world’s first artisan pizza vending machine”. He is confident his pizzas are superior to the mass-produced ones from vending machines in Italy, France and the USA. His Pizza Gio product is partially cooked at the Bondi restaurant, then chilled and transported across town to the Chatswood food court. The Italian-made machine – which holds 42 Margherita and 42 hot salami pizzas – then dispatches them in three minutes.

Pizza Gio machine

 

I really wanted to be at the takeaway window of Lenny’s Pizza in Brooklyn to say “Two, gimme two … that’s good” just like John/Tony did, and then slap one slice onto the other. Instead I stood in front of a 2m x 2m beige box, swiped my credit card and waited for Pizza Gio to give birth to a $12 Margherita.

PizzaGioCountdown_2

 

The 11-inch pizza comes in an open box – uncut. Although hungry, I didn’t fancy pushing it into my mouth whole. What would John/Tony do? Probably fold it into a calzone, but not wanting the mess, I began a desperate hunt for a knife. A couple of laps of the food court later, stolen knife and serviette in hand, I’d earned my lunch and Stayin’ Alive seemed an appropriate song to eat to.

PizzaDelivery_2

 

I gave a big tick each for the crispy crust, the fresh tasty tomato and mozzarella topping and the distinguishable basil aroma. No ticks though for its lukewarmness after the mad food court dash looking for something to cut it with. Perhaps it’s aimed at pizza lovers who live or work nearby, or people who carry knives.

Compared to the original, very good Pompei pizzas in Bondi, these stack up remarkably well. But will customers favour Pizza Gio over the cheaper, well-known pizza brand on sale a few metres away? I’d hope so, as there are plans to expand the business throughout Sydney and beyond in the future.

(The writer paid for her own pizza.) 

And now, here’s the real Tony:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=okpCx87orOA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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