I have been on holiday in Italy, in my Mum’s birth place for over two weeks now, and although I have been coming here every summer since I was born, I cannot seem to get used to the bounty of the local fresh produce and the Italianness of the local villagers, most of whom are distant cousins!
A few days ago, Mum’s friend Nicoletta, the village’s most loved seamstress, knocked at our door to deliver a wicker basket full of glistening, black aubergines, freshly picked from her garden. They were so plump and firm and felt so smooth and shiny, Mamma felt the urge to turn them into Parmigiana.
Never mind it was a boiling hot day…
This is what distinguishes me from my mum : she’s fearless in the kitchen. And everywhere else, for that matter…
First off, she washed and sliced the aubergines and sprinkled them with salt to help release some of their moisture.
This serves two purposes:
to get rid of any bitterness and to make sure that when you then deep-fry the slices, they stay dry and don‘t absorb too much oil.
While the salt was doing its trick, she made a simple tomato sauce, frying off a few bashed garlic cloves, skin on, basil and 1 chopped shallot in a little EVOO. She then added around 500 ml of homemade Passata (I give you allowance to use store bought!) and cook it on low for around 20 minutes and discarded the garlic and the wilted basil leaves.
She then dusted off the salt from the aubergine slices and squeezed them well to release any liquid. She then patted them dry with a paper towel and deep-fried them in EVOO, in small batches, until crispy. Normally she would have dusted the slices with plain four before frying, but these gleaming jewels were so fresh, she did’t want to alter their natural flavor and texture. They turned out perfectly golden and mouth-wateringly inviting…
At this stage the smell coming from the kitchen was intoxicating, I think I lost control of my senses for a minute… I had to stop myself stealthily stealing the aubergine chips resting on a platter…It wasn’t my fault; I was possessed by the Parmigiana demon!
All that was left to do then was to layer an over tray with the sugo (tomato sauce), then the aubergines and mozzarella. She topped it with another few layers of all the ingredients, dusted the top with grated Parmigiano and baked in the oven for 30 minutes at 200 Celsius (390 Fahrenheit).
As hard as it is, this dish is better served the next day, if you can wait that long…
A few nights ago, I had dinner at my cousin Elena’s house in Milan. She is the sweetest, most gorgeous girl, but, notoriously, she can’t cook to save her life! Lucky for all the guests, she also invited her bother Giorgio along, who was born with the cooking gene. Giorgio has always been a flamboyant wine connoisseur and a passionate amateur cook and has certain savoir-faire in the kitchen, it always is a pleasure for me to watch him at work and exchange tips and recipes. That night he made Italy’s most loved summer classic, Spaghetti con Pomodorini (with fresh cherry tomatoes), with a little twist. He cooked the pasta “risotto style”: forget about boiling, draining and then dressing the pasta with your sauce! When you do it “risotto-style”, the spaghetti cooks in a rich and velvety fresh tomato liquor, slowly absorbing all the flavors, while the starch released by the gentle and constant stirring motion creates a luscious sauce.
INGREDIENTS, serves 4
4 tablespoons of EVOO
1 garlic clove, skin on, bruised with the back of a knife
2 tins of tomatoes (to 2 lb of Passata)
1 punnet of cherry tomatoes, halved
salt, to taste
1 packet of Spaghetti
Freshly grated Parmigiano to serve
1. Heat up the oil in a heavy-based frying pan or large saucepan. Stir fry the shallots and garlic over medium-low heat, for 1-2 minutes or until the onion is soft and the garlic smells fragrant. Add the tinned tomatoes or passata, season with salt, bring to a simmer, then turn the heat to low.
2. Cook the sauce for 20 minutes.
3. Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Cook th spaghetti in it for 1-2 minutes or until the pasta has softened. Using kitchen tongs, lift the spaghetti straight into the tomato saucepan. Cover with enough pasta cooking water so that all the pasta is submerged with liquid. Stirring gently, continue cooking until the pasta is Al Dente and the liquid has been absorbed and you are left with thick, rich sauce. This will take 5-7 minutes, according to the size of spaghetti you use. When the pasta is al dente, add the cherry tomatoes and basil leaves. Turn the heat off. Taste for salt and adjust accordingly.
4. Serve hot, with a generous dusting of parmigiano and plenty of bread to mop up that delicious sauce.
- Pennette con Pomodori… (massiskitchen.wordpress.com)
- Adventures in pasta-making: fresh spaghetti and meatballs (sophnstuff.wordpress.com)
- Last 7 Days of Cooking #4 (bellacorea.wordpress.com)
Panzanella is another great example of how well Italians do it the kitchen when fridge and pantry look desolate and empty.
This has so much value in the Italian culinary tradition of Cucina Povera.
It is very easy to create a good meal out of sophisticated and extravagant ingredients. It requires a lot more skill and creativity to make a delicious and nutritious meal out of stale bread and a few bits and pieces.
Lucky for me, having spent the first 27 years of my life in Italy observing Mum and Nonna making do with what they had to feed big families, I can safely say I have acquired that skill!
Panzanella, is a salad composed of pieces of stale bread previously soaked in water and a teeny bit of white wine vinegar, mixed together with tomatoes, celery leaves and a small handful of chopped celery stalks, torn basil leaves, finely chopped red onion or shallot, and baby capers all merrily dressed with EVOO and salt.
These are ingredients that, even in the bleakest of situations, are always present in an Italian kitchen and that is how this dish came about.
Let the salad sit and develop texture and flavour for at least two hours. You can even make this a day ahead and then add fresh basil and a drizzle of EVOO just before you serve it.
I urge you not to be tempted to add many more extraneous ingredients. Feel free to substitute the celery with a small amount of diced baby green pepper (capsicum), if you must, but don’t go berserk and start adding things like raw garlic or meat of any kind.
Sorry to be pedantic and fastidious, that is, I am afraid, another quality I have acquired in my first 27 years of living in Italy!
My maternal Nonna wasn’t the most sophisticated cook. She would always make the same two or three dishes, but, to this day, my siblings, my cousins and I are yet to taste anything as comforting and delicious as her sugo di pomodoro, polenta con salsiccia and sugo d’agnello. It was always fascinating to observe her in the kitchen, effortlessly turning everyday, humble ingredients into delightful feasts. She never once measured anything, her only tools were her hands and her eyes. And her exquisite taste buds! For your sake, I have attempted to provide measurements, but feel free to adjust to your liking, the way Nonna always did.
INGREDIENTS, serves 4
4 tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil
2 garlic cloves
2 small onion or French shallots, peeled and left whole
1/4 pepper (capiscum)
1 celery stick
1/2 cup of good red wine
1 table spoon of tomato paste (concentrate)
2 tins of good quality can tomatoes or home-made passata
1 rosemary or thyme sprig
a few origano leaves
500 gr (16 oz) of fresh tagliatelle or tagliolini
1. Heat up the oil in a sauce pan; with the back of your knife, bash the garlic cloves in their skin and add them to the hot oil along with a few large chunks of yellow or red pepper (capsicum), the peeled French shallots (or onion), the celery stalk and rosemary sprigs.
2. When the vegetables have taken a bit a colour, brown a few large pieces of shoulder or shank of lamb. De-glaze the pan with a glass of red wine and cook on a high flame until the alcohol has eveporated.
3. Add the tinned tomatoes (home-made would be my Nonna’s preference, but feel free to use good quality tinned ones, like Mutti or Cirio). Turn the heat right down and cook slowly and covered with a mesh lid for 3 to 4 hours. After that time you can discard the garlic, the peppers and the celery stalks. Turn the heat up and simmer for about 10 minutes, or until the sauce has thickened. Season with salt and white pepper, to your liking.
Serve generously with home-made tagliolini (pictured below) or any pasta you prefer.
- Wild Boar Sugo (scarpettadolcetto.wordpress.com)
- Basic Meat Sauce – Sugo con Carne (fromthebartolinikitchens.com)
- The Wines of Carignano Del Sulcis Sardinia a Tasting Event at La Scuola di Eataly New York (manoavino.com)