Linguine risottate con Vongole e Zucchine (Linguine with clams and zucchini cooked risotto style)

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Well, that’s some title! Don’t be alarmed by the lengthy description though, this lip-smackingly luscious bowl of perfectly al dente linguine will be yours in no time at all. Your sauce with be ready by the time the water has … Continue reading

Cannellini Beans Stew, my Italian Baked Beans

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Say hallo to the perfect winter warmer, and quite the healthy fix too, if you are watching your diet. Pulses and winter are a wonderful marriage. When you need that extra nourishment that will keep you warm and energetic without impacting on your digestive system and your waist line,  you can safely turn to beans. I love all varieties, but I confess a weakness for the pearly and silky Cannellini. You can buy great tinned ones these days and you shouldn’t be made feel guilty if you’d rather quickly open a tin a of goodness now instead of soaking your beans yesterday…This is fast food at its best. In a matter of minutes you’ll feel warm and cosy again.

INGREDIENTS, serves 4

2 tins of cannellini beans, well drained (or 1- 1/2 pounds of dried beans soaked over night and simmered for 2 hours or until cooked through)

2 French shallots, thinly sliced

1 celery stick, thinly sliced, 1 garlic clove, bashed with the back of a knife

1/4 cup of diced smoked pancetta, or speck, or chorizo (omit for a vegetarian option)

1/2 chillie, thinly sliced

3 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil

2 tins of tomatoes, chopped (or home-made passata)

1-2 sprigs of rosemary

a pinch of sugar

a drizzle of balsamic vinegar

celery leaves

salt to taste

bread or soft polenta for serving

HOW TO

1. Heat up the oil in a large, heavy based frying pan. Add the sliced shallot, garlic, chillie and celery and stir-fry over medium heat for 2-3 minutes or until fragrant and soft.

2. Add the pancetta or chorizo and cook together with the vegetables for a further 2-3 minutes.

3. Add the drained beans, combine the ingredients well with a wooden spoon, the add the tinned tomatoes (or passata), a pinch a sugar and the rosemary sprig. Bring to a simmer, then reduce the heat to low and cook for 15-20 minutes or until the sauce has reduced. Taste for salt and adjust accordingly.

4. Turn off the heat, drizzle a little balsamic vinegar on top, scatter a few celery leaves and serve with grilled ciabatta  or soft polenta.

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Leek, Potato and Cannellini Beans Soup (Zuppa di Porri, Patate e Cannellini)

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As the winter season approaches here in Sydney, I feel a fervent yearning for heart-warming food, the kind that will nourish you body and will comfort your soul as you perfume the house with scented candles, dim the lights and snuggle under a blanket to catch your favourite show or, in my case, read a cookery book. I am more of a summer person, and yet I find myself happily surrendering to the inevitable winter chills and shorter days as I head to the stove to make scalding hot soups, ready to be enriched with seasonal goods.

INGREDIENTS, serves 4

1 leek, white part only, thinly sliced and well washed

2 medium potatoes, peeled and cubed

1 celery stick, sliced

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

3 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil

1 small handful of smoked speck or pancetta (or chorizo), cut into cubes, omit for a vegetarian/vegan option

1 tin of cannellini beans, well drained and rinsed

3/4 cup of baby pasta (ditalini, orzo, risoni…)

salt and pepper to taste

chillies and celery leaves to serve, optional

HOW TO

1. Heat up the oil in a medium saucepan, drop in the leeks and cook over medium-low heat for 8-10 minutes or until soft.

2. Add the potatoes and celery along with the garlic  and pancetta and cook over medium heat for 3-5 minutes.

3. Add the beans and cover with water. Simmer for 20-25 minutes or until the vegetables are soft.

4. Taste for salt and adjust accordingly.

5. Puree 1/3 of the soup in a food processor or blender then add it back to the pot. Add the baby pasta and cook in the soup until al dente (you may need to add a little water to the pot, just enough to make sure the pasta is well covered)

6. Serve drizzled with evoo, back pepper and celery leaves and some freshly chopped chillies for a little extra kick.

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Craving Italian Tomatoes…(Oven roasted Tomatoes with Evoo and Balsamic)

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Italian cooking is always associated with the abundant use of tomatoes, may they be fresh, placed on a chunck of crunchy bread smeared with extra-virgin olive oil and garlic, or used in a sauce. The reason behind it is that in Italy we are blessed with the sweetest and most flavorsome  varieties. It has to do with a combination of great soil and holy water, and maybe a miracle by the Madonna thrown in for good measure, but what is certain is that it poses quite a challenge for me to find a red fruit that can stand the comparison with Italian Pomodori. So, when I am away from my Bella Italia, and I crave the Campania sun-ripened jewels of the vine, I make do with what I can find and use a few tricks to enhance it and turn it mighty good. This is my secret revealed…

INGREDIENTS, serves 4

3 cups of cherry tomatoes (or heirloom tomatoes), halved

3 tablespoons of Extra-virgin olive oil (evoo)

2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar

a small pinch of sugar

salt and pepper to season

fresh herbs (oregano, basil, parsley…)

2 garlic cloves, bashed with the back of a knife

1 small chillie (optional)

HOW TO

1. Turn your oven onto 160 C (330 F)

2. Line an oven tray with baking paper

3. Mix the tomatoes with the rest of the ingredients and tip onto the oven tray

4. Roast for 1 hour or so or until the tomatoes look sun-brunt and wrinkly and are oozing out their delectable nectar… that’s when you know they are ready to meet their match, a large chunck of home-made sourdough bread…This classifies as the best lunch ever. Especially if you pair it with a glass (or two) of  chilled rose’ …

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You can also use them  as a dressing for pasta,  as the ultimate bruschetta topping, served with Italian savory donuts or as a side dish to accompany meat or fish

Buon appetito!

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Authentic Basil Pesto Genovese

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The obvious perk of having a green-thumbed husband is that, wherever I turn in the garden, I am bound to stumble upon edible goodies. Even in the busiest time, when the work load and the chores of domestic life take over, I can always count of fresh, perfumed herbs. Whatever is in season, it is likely to be growing in our sunny backyard, ready for me to pick and transform into a nutritious meal. Turning emerald-green basil leaves into Italy’s most loved pasta condiment is an easy enough task, the ingredients are few and easy to gather, the method quite straight-forward; the only extra bit that will make the difference between a pesto and a really good pesto, is love and commitment to authenticity. Pesto is an ancient Ligurian dish and its name encapsulates the method used to produced it: in the Genoese dialect the word pestâ (Italian: pestare) means to poundto crush, in reference to the original method of preparation, with marble mortar and pestle, however it is acceptable these days to use a food processor. What has remained unaltered in times is the addition of boiled potato cubes and green beans, which elevate this humble dish to a delectable, substantial meal. Traditionally it is served with straccetti, trofie or trenette pasta, typical from the Liguria region of Italy, however spaghetti marries equally well with pesto and it is by far my dad’s desert island meal.

Papa’, this is for you!

INGREDIENTS, serves 4

2 large bunches of basil, stalks trimmed

2 ice cubes (they will help preserve the vibrant green hue of the basil)

1 garlic clove, peeled (use more if you like it very pungent)

3/4 cup of extra-virgin olive oil

1/3 cup of pine nuts

1/4 cup of grated parmigiano

1/4 cup of freshly grated pecorino

sea salt to taste

1 medium potato, peeled and cut into small cubes

1 cup of green beans, trimmed and cut into three

320 gr  (11 oz) of dry spaghetti

HOW TO

1. If using a food processor: put the basil, garlic, nuts, cheese and ice cubes in the bowl of a food processor fitted with blades and blitz until smooth.  Slowly add in the oil in a stream and process with the rest of the ingredients until dense and well emulsified. Taste for salt and adjust accordingly.

2. If using a pestle and mortar, add basil, garlic pine nuts, ice cubes and a pinch of salt to the mortar. Start working with the pestle, pressing and rotating it until all the ingredients are nicely ground. Add the cheese and mix well. Slowly pour in the oil and mix well until well emulsified. Taste for salt and adjust accordingly. Discard the ice cubes that have not melted into the pesto. Set aside in the fridge until ready to use (it will keep, well covered in oil, for over a week).

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3. Bring a large pot of slated water to the boil. Drop in your pasta along with the potato cubes. 4 minutes into cooking, add the beans. Cook your pasta and vegetables until nicely al dente. Drain, but be sure to reserve 3  or 4 tablespoon of pasta cooking liquor (aqua di cottura). Place the pasta, potato and beans onto a serving dish, pour over the pesto and mix well. If too dry, add a little of the reserved cooking water.

Serve piping hot!

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The Real Italian Bruschetta

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Bruschetta (pronouced brus’ketta) is to an Italian as vital as a peanut butter sandwich is to an American. We may have it most days during summer, as a way to celebrate the most awaited season of tomatoes at their ripest and to use up stale bread that simply cannot be thrown out and wasted. It is a combination of simple and humble ingredients and for that it perfectly encapsulate Italian cooking at its best. In Italy we hardly ever stray from the classic combination of bread rubbed with garlic and seasoned with EVOO and salt, grilled on both sides and topped with the juiciest tomatoes you can get your hands on: San Marzano, Pachino, heirloom cherry tomatoes or the glorious oxheart variety. With their ruby-red flesh and the shape of a love heart, they turn my breakfast table into an instant feast for the eyes and the palate. Sweet consolation to the idea that the end of summer in nigh…DSCN0145

INGREDIENTS, serves 4

4 slices of 1 day-old sourdough

1 garlic clove, cut in half

2-3 oxheart tomatoes (depending on the size)

4 tablespoons of EVOO (or home-made basil oil)

salt to taste

basil leaves to serve

HOW TO

1. Place a griddle pan on the stove over high heat. You can also grill your bread on a BBQ or using the grill function in your oven.

2. Rub the bread with the cut size of the garlic.

3. Place the tomatoes on their side and slice them to your desired thickness. Season them with salt and EVOO.

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4. Dip the bread slices, on both sides, in the tomato dish to soak up some of the juices. This will turn your stale slice of bread in a delightful, savory morsel once grilled.

5. Grill the bread on both sides, top with the tomatoes and basil leaves and serve as a healthy breakfast or a light lunch.

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Ricotta and Basil Gnocchi with Fresh Tomato Sauce (Gnocchi di Ricotta e Basilico al Pomodoro Fresco)

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My final days in Italy are, sadly, fast approaching. I have spent 6 weeks back home with my family in the company of my Italian folks, I’ve eaten more than I should, drank way too much Italian red wine, bundled myself and my boys in multiple layers of thermal clothing, scarves, hats and coats, played snow ball fights and I even skiied in the Dolomites for the first time in my life… And after such an intense winter time, I now feel an anchoring for summer, for peeling off a few layers of clothing, for walking barefoot and, more to the point, for vine-ripened tomatoes! The kind you ought to handle with care otherwise they burst in your hands, oozing out  their ruby, sweet liquor, their sticky seeds landing inexorably on the front of your freshly laundered white singlet… In 10 days, back in the Northern beaches of Sydney, I will be able to hit the farmers market and select, pick and eventually turn these summer jewels into Italian’s most loved pasta dressing: Passata di Pomodoro, fresh Tomato Sauce. And as I do that, I’m sure I will be missing my Italian family and the coziness of winter…Such is life!

INGREDIENTS (serves 4)

For the Ricotta Gnocchi (not to be confused with Potato Gnocchi)

450 g (2 1/2 cups) full-cream ricotta (using low-fat ricotta won’t work…Live a little!)

2 egg yolks

1/2 teaspoon salt flakes

1 pinch freshly ground white pepper

100–120 (2/3 cups) g plain flour, plus extra for dusting

2/3 cup (50 g) freshly grated parmigiano

5-6 leaves of basil, finely shredded

For the sauce

850 gr (2 lb) of fresh tomatoes (or 1 tin of good quality tinned tomatoes or your own Passata)

1-2 shallots (or 1 medium brown onion), finely chopped

4 tablespoons of Extra-Virgin Olive Oil

1 garlic clove, skin on, bashed with back of a knife

1 small celery stick, finely chopped

salt flakes, to taste

a few yellow celery leaves

a handful of basil leaves

HOW TO

1. Start by making the sauce. Wash the tomatoes, score the top gently with a knife and blanch them in boiling water for 1 minutes. Plunge them  into cold water to allow the skin to come off easily. Peel the tomatoes, chop them roughly and set aside.

2. Heat up the oil in a large, heavy-based frying pan. Stir fry the shallots, celery and the garlic on medium heat for 1-2 minutes or until the shallots turn translucent and slightly golden and the garlic smells fragrant. Drop in the chopped tomatoes (or tinned tomatoes, if using. Or, if you’ve been amazingly good, your own Passata…), season with salt and cook on medium-low heat for 15-20 minutes. Turn off the heat and add the celery and basil leaves. Cover with a lid and set aside.

3. In the meantime, make the gnocchi. Discard any excess liquid from the ricotta, then put it in a large mixing bowl with the egg yolks, cheese, salt and pepper. Add the flour and work with floured hands or a wooden spoon until you have a smooth, soft dough – it should be pliable, a little sticky but not too wet. Don’t be tempted to add lots of flour to make it easier to work the dough as the resulting gnocchi will almost certainly be dense and doughy. The secret to soft and pillowy gnocchi is to go easy with flour, use just enough to make the dough come together.

4. Flour your hands and cooking bench generously and divide the dough into 6 pieces. Take 1 piece, sprinkle it with flour and roll it with your hands to form a log. Cut the log into small rectangles and set them aside on a floured wooden board. Repeat with the remaining dough.

5. Turn the heat back on under the tomato sauce frying pan (on low). Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Drop the gnocchi, in two or three batches, into the pan of boiling water and stir gently.   Cook for 1–2 minutes or until they come up to the surface, then fish them out with a slotted spoon and drop them straight into the pan with the tomato sauce. Repeat until all the gnocchi are cooked.

6. Turn off the heat. Serve as it is or with freshly torn basil leaves and a good grating of Parmigiano.

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Gnocchi all’Aglione (home-made gnocchi with Tuscan garlic tomato sauce)

The day started with a bang. And I mean a proper bang, on the head to be precise.

My darling 5 year-old had decided to prop his favourite book on the shelf right above my side of the bed the night before “for you to read it to me in the morning” he then confessed when I asked him, still holding a piece of cloth on my nose to stop it from bleeding.

I suppose I should encourage his love for reading, but, somehow, being reminded how important books are for one’s brain development with  Dr Seuss‘s collective work  landing on my nose at 5 am,  doesn’t seem to agree with me…

Later that day, my husband calls me from set, with the news he’s just ran into a metal slab whilst shooting a romantic encounter with a stunning looking actress, and he’s now at the hospital being stitched up. After my inevitable giggle at such cruel faith on what should have been such a happy day at work (eh, he,he !), I decided to turn the day good again.

Comfort food sprang to mind… So many choices… A cake? A risotto? Lasagne? Potato Gnocchi! The soft-as-pillow kind, coated in a robust, Tuscan tomato sauce.

My nose still hurts, Richard’s got four stitches on his forehead, but our tummies are happy indeed!

Ingredients for the gnocchi

850 gr (2 pounds) of starchy potatoes (russets or desiree)

1 egg yolk

Pinch of salt

3/4-1 cup of plain flour

Ingredients for the sauce

3 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

1 small handful of parsley stalks, finely chopped

A couple of pinches of salt

1/4 cup of white wine

1 tin of whole tomatoes, crushed with a fork

Grated Parmigiano, freshly ground black pepper and parsley leaves to serve

How to

Put the potatoes, in their skin, in a large pot of salted, cold water. Bring to the boil over high heat and cook for 40-50 minutes or until cooked through. Drain well, then peel the potatoes, using a pairing knife if necessary as they will be very hot.

Pass the potatoes through a ricer (or use a potato masher), and allow to cool for 5-10 minutes.

Add the egg yolk and a small pinch of salt.

Start adding the flour, a little a the time. Depending on your potatoes and the type of flour you use, you may need to use a little more or a little less than indicated. You want a soft dough, that is pliable and not tacky. I normally end up using 3/4 and use the rest for dusting while I’m shaping the gnocchi.

Don’t be tempted to add to much flour though, or your gnocchi will be heavy.

Cut the dough into 4-5 pieces, roll them out onto a surface dusted with flour and shape them into logs. Cut each log into 2-3 cm pieces.

You can leave them as that or roll them onto the tines of a floured fork, gently but like you mean it. As the gnocchi curl into the fork, the tine pattern will be embossed onto to them. Later, when coated in sauce, those very ridges will trap it in, for the joy of your palate.

Once you have rolled all your gnocchi, dust them with flour and set aside.

To make the sauce, heat up the oil in a large frying pan, quickly sauté the garlic and parsley stalks for 1-2 minutes. Pour in the wine and cook over high heat for 1-2 minutes or until the alcohol has evaporated. Add the crushed tomatoes, a pinch of salt and cook, bring to a simmer and then turn the heat to medium low and cook for 15-20 minutes.

Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil.

Boil your gnocchi in batches.

As they are cooked, they will float to the surface. Fish them out with a slotted spoon and drop them straight into the tomato sauce pot. Repeat until all your gnocchi are cooked. Saute’ the gnocchi in the sauce for 1 minute to allow the flavor to mingle.

Dust with parmigiano, top with a few parsley leaves and serve hot.

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Crushed Peas, Mint and Pecorino Bruschetta

This post is dedicated to all of you in the northern hemisphere, you lucky duckies about to savour and immerse yourselves in the long-awaited spring season.

And the vast array of green goodness it brings.

Think sweet baby broad beans, prickly but juicy artichokes, pointy and proud asparagus and the vivid green of plump, fresh garden peas, slightly crushed and married to a fruity Ligurian extra-virgin olive oil.

Ingredients:

2 slices of sourdough (if you are as insane as I am, you can bake your own…)

1 garlic clove cut in half

5 table spoons of extra-virgin olive oil (you can use basil-infused oil, if you have made some)

2 cups of fresh or frozen peas

a small handful of mint leaves

1 tablespoon of lemon juice +zest of half a lemon

4 tablespoons of pecorino shavings

Salt and black pepper to taste

Rub the bread with the cut garlic and brush 1 tablespoon of oil on each slice.

Grill on both sides until golden.

In the meantime, bring a small pot of salted water to the boil.

Drop the shelled peas in and cook for 2 minutes.

Drain and rinse under cold water to keep the peas vibrant green hue.

Place the peas in a bowl, crush them with the back of a fork and season them with 1 tablespoon of oil, a few shredded mint leaves, the lemon juice, salt and pepper.

Arrange the grilled bread on a chopping board or a serving platter, top with the peas and the pecorino shavings, a few mint leaves and the lemon zest.

Drizzle each slice with 1 tablespoon of extra virgin and eat while still warm.

A celebration of spring! (and only another 6 months before it hits Australia…sigh…)

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A Mighty Good Winter Stew

Although the sun is shining, the southern cold wind keeps picking up. It’s winter here in Sydney and we should stop pretending we don’t really have a cold season. I still stumble upon guys in shorts and flip-flops as I walk down the streets of Avalon bundled up in leather coat, hat, scarf and boots and still feeling my bum will freeze off! I see none but one remedy to fight this weather, whip up a pork stew. One that looks like this

Ingredients for 4 people

6 pork sausages, 6 porks rashers, bones removed

1 onion, 1 carrot, 1 celery stalk, chopped

1 spring of thyme

1 bay leaf

half a bottle of red wine

2 cups of chicken or veal stock

Finely chopped parsley, finely grated zest of 1 lemon, and finely chopped  1/2 garlic clove to scatter on top (gremolata)

Polenta to serve

How to

1. Brown your sausages and rashers in a little olive oil, then set aside.

2. In the same pan, fry off a soffritto (Italian for stir-fry) of the usual suspects: onion, carrot and celery, then add thyme, the browned meat and 1 bay leaf and cook together for a few minutes. Pour over half a bottle of red wine (I used Sangiovese) . Once the alcohol has evaporated, add half a litre of good stock, bring to a boil and then turn the heat to low, cover with a lid and forget about it for 3 hours. Your stew will look irresistibly indulgent and intense and the meat should be soft and sweet.

3. Sprinkle a gremolata (Italian for finely cut herbs and lemon zest) of finely chopped parsley, half a garlic clove and lemon rind.

You can serve this with mash potato if you wish, but I tend to find it too rich, mainly because it is! I think soft polenta is the perfect match to this stew. And to set the record straight once for all, you needn’t add butter and parmesan to your cooked polenta. Salt will do. Polenta is the vehicle to absorb your stew sauce, if it’s already loaded with extra fat, your meal will turn into a potential heart attack…

No need to dress the plate with lashings of extra-virgin olive oil either, I guarantee there’s enough robust flavours in there. Simply open a nice bottle of red and get stuck in.

I think Richard and I will give up red meat in our next life…

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