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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Sweet Potato Risotto with Balsamic Vinegar

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My love affair with risotto goes deeper than a simple passion for its creamy texture and irresistible savory bite, it’s embedded in my DNA. I was born and raised in the heart of Pianura Padana in the Lombardy region of Italy, where rice grows abundant and where each lombardo d.o.c (citizen of Lombardy) takes sensational pride in cooking the humble produce of our, otherwise slightly dull, flat land. Risotto is our staple dish. We may have it simply flavored with Grana Padano cheese (similar to the more notable Parmigiano, and just as delightful), or we may turn it into a more sumptuous meal with the addition of saffron strands and slow cooked ossobuco. No matter what the add-ons, and I can’t stress this vehemently enough, there will never be a worthy risotto without a great stock. This is the one time I advocate commitment in the kitchen and ditch cubes and salty powders in flavor of a wholesome home-made stock, may it be vegetable, chicken , beef or a mix of the three. Don’t skimp here, the secret to  a flavoursome risotto lies in its stock. The rest is a simple act of patience, better achieved with a glass of wine in the hand that is not busy stirring the rice…

INGREDIENTS, serves 4

For the roasted sweet potato

2-3 sweet potatoes (depending on their size), cut into chunks, skin on (well brushed)

a few springs of thyme and rosemary

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

2 tablespoons of EVOO (Extra-virgin olive oil)

1 tablespoon of balsamic vinegar

salt to season

For the risotto

1 brown onion, finely chopped

2 tablespoons of EVOO

320 gr of Carnaroli or arborio rice

1/4 cup of dry white wine

4-5 cups of chicken, beef or vegetable stock (preferably home-made)

the roasted sweet potatoes

1 tablespoon of butter

1/4 cup of freshly grated parmesan cheese

HOW TO

1. Mix all the ingredients for the roasted sweet potatoes in a bowl, toss well and tip onto an oven try lined with baking paper. Roast in a medium/hot oven for 35-40 minutes or until soft and slightly caramelized. Set aside to cool at room temperature

2. Bring the stock to a simmer. In the meantime, fry the onion in olive oil in a large heavy-sided frying pan. Add the rice and allow to be coated with the oil and to slightly toast over medium heat.

3. Add the white wine and allow for the alcohol to evaporate, stirring gently. Pour yourself some wine, while you are at it…

4. Turn the heat down and start adding the stock a ladleful at a time, while stirring gently. Taste for salt and adjust accordingly. Keep adding stock until the rice is cooked, this will take around 18 minutes. Add the cooked sweet potatoes.

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5. Turn off the heat and add a generous dusting of parmigiano, a tablespoon of  butter and one ladeful of stock. Season with salt and pepper and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, if needed. Stir vigorously to release the starch and create the classic all’onda* texture. Cover with a lid and let it rest for a few minutes to  create the perfect mantecatura, creaminess

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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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Potato Croquettes (Crocchette di Patate)

 

I was driving around Sydney a few weeks ago, distractedly listening to the local Italian radio station, when a very animated conversation caught my attention. The radio host and an elderly Southern Italian lady on the phone were engaged in a feisty discussion about one of everybody’s favorite Italian side dish, crocchette di palate, potato croquettes. The dear lady truly sounded in despair over the failure of the recipe given to her by her neighbor’s sister-in-law: the croquettes broke down in the frying pan and so did her spirit. After a detailed sequence of questions, the host, a self-proclaimed food expert, gave his verdict: the neighbor’s sister-in-law never mentioned resting the uncooked, shaped croquettes in the fridge before frying them. That apparently, is the secret to a perfectly crunchy morsel that holds its shape in the hot oil. The lady’s spirit was quickly resorted and new confidence was instilled into her heart. And into mine, for that matter. I had never attempted to make croquettes, but now that, yet another secret of Italian home-cooking had been bestowed upon me, I could not give it a miss.

Ingredients, makes 12-16 croquettes

2 large red potatoes

4-5 tablespoons of plain flour

1 tablespoon or potato starch (or corn flour)

2 eggs (one for potato mix, one for the batter)

salt, to taste

1/4 teaspoon of ground nutmeg

a little freshly ground black pepper

2 spring onions , finely chopped

1 handful of flat leaf parsley, roughly chopped

1 small handful of chives, finely chopped

2 cups of breadcrumbs (home-made or  store-bought panko crumbs)

How to

Wash the potatoes, place them in a  pot of cold water, skin on and simmer for 30 minutes or until cooked through.

Drain the water, allow for the potatoes to cool for 5 minutes then peel them.

Mash the potatoes with a masher or using a potato ricer.

Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg, add the egg and the herbs.

Add the flour and potato starch (or corn flour) and mix it through to obtain a firm yet pliable dough. Depending on the size of your potatoes you may need less flour or add a little more if the dough is too sticky.

Place the crumbs onto a plate.

Crack the egg into a bowl and whisk it with a fork.

Using wet hands, shape the dough into little sausages the size of your thumb (or bigger if you so prefer), dip them into the egg and the coat them with the crumbs. Set aside onto a plate and refrigerate for 10 minutes.

Heat up the oil in a large, heavy-based frying pan. Test the oil by dropping in a cube of bread. If it sizzles at the sides and turns golden in 15 seconds, the oil is ready to go.

Drop in the croquettes, 4 0r 5 at a time and deep fry on both sides for 2-3 minutes or until golden.

Drain on kitchen paper, sprinkle with salt flakes and eat while still hot.

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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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Related articles

Nonna’s sauteed potatoes

One of the best things about having started a food blog, is the chance to connect with food lovers world-wide and exchange recipes and culinary traditions and adventures.

I recently posted on my Italian blog an article about roast potatoes and one of my readers, Sandro, shared his Nonna’s recipe and I felt compelled to try it.

Nothing could taste or look as good as his gran’s dish, but I was very pleased with the result and he seemed happy too.

Sandro’s Nonna used to put potato chunks in a metal frying pan (I used a non-stick scanpan…I hate doing the dishes…)with some water, salt and a 4-5 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. Then she’d put the lid on to allow the steam to cook the potatoes through and make them fluffy. After about 20 minutes, she’d take the lid off to let the oil and the heat create the crunchy, irresistible crust.

This is what they looked like when I made them.

My Nonna Irene used to make them in a very similar way, they were so delicious and my siblings, my cousins and I used to fight over that last bit of slightly burnt potato, stuck to the pan and drenched in oil…

This post is dedicated to her and all the beautiful Nonnas in our lives.

I miss you…

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Infornata di pollo con origano e pomodori (Chicken, oregano and tomato bake)

This dish is quintessential Italian.

It’s a peasant, rustic assembly of fresh ingredients mixed with left-overs and brought together by the crisp dryness of white wine.

It’s a dish that appeals to children and grown-ups alike and is therefore the perfect family meal.

I normally make this when I have left-over boiled potatoes and stale bread, but you can decide to boil your potatoes especially for this dish  and to use some fresh bread. Either way, it will be delicious!

Ingredients for 4 people

a couple of handfuls of chunks of rustic bread

3 potatoes, parboiled and peeled

4 chicken marylands or 8 chicken thigh fillets, skin removed

2 garlic cloves, bashed with the back of aknife

5-6 peeled tomatoes, cut into chunks

5-6 tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil

a handful of dried origano

salt and pepper to taste

1/4 cup of dry white wine

1 onion, cut up into chunks

1 handful of caper berries

How to

Pre-heat your oven to 200 c (390 F)

Line an oven dish tray with baking paper and scatter chunks  of stale bread and boiled potatoes, the chicken a few, bashed, garlic cloves and peeled fresh tomatoes*.

Cut up an onion and place the slices over the chicken meat to protect it from drying in the oven.

Season with salt, pepper and dried origano. Add a good splash of white wine and a drizzle of extra-virgin.

Cover with foil and place in the oven. After 25 minutes, remove the foil, add a couple of handfuls of caper berries and allow for the potatoes to crisp up.

Take the tray straight to the table and observe you dinner guests fight over the last piece of chicken and wine juice-soaked bread…

* To peel your tomatoes, score them and boil them for 1 minutes than submerge them in cold water to stop the cooking process. With your fingers pinch the cooked skin off .

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