Friday, 2 May 2014

Ricotta Fatta in Casa

Every Monday morning an elderly lady and her daughter drive down our road selling homemade ricotta out of the back of a little white van. I have to say that before sampling their produce I was never much of a ricotta enthusiast. Like many Brits, I’d always thought of it as a rather mushy, bland and uninspiring cheese that was not much good for anything other than mixing with spinach or perhaps into a cake batter. How things have changed. I can honestly say that the ricotta we now buy religiously every week is one of the most delicious, pure and satisfying foods I have ever eaten and my main motivation for getting out of bed on even the dreariest of Monday mornings.

Some time ago I started thinking about what sets this ricotta apart from the rest and came to three conclusions. The first was that the quality and flavour of the milk is of paramount importance, tasty milk = tasty cheese! Secondly, the seasoning has to be absolutely spot-on, too much salt and it will be inedible, not enough and it will be bland. Finally, I discovered that, shockingly, this ricotta was in fact not an authentic one! The word ricotta in Italian actually means ‘re-cooked’ due to the fact that the cheese is made from the leftover whey of other cheeses such as mozzarella. The difference with this ricotta is that, rather than being a by-product of another cheese, it is in fact made directly from full fat milk, rendering it far creamier and more luxurious than anything you can find in the supermarket.

After having this epiphany I set myself the challenge of trying to replicate the sacred ‘Monday ricotta’ at home. It was no easy task! For the past 3 months or so I have executed variations of the ricotta recipe every Sunday, producing results which were never quite as good as the original. This week I am happy to say that I have finally arrived at something which I feel does ‘the Monday ricotta ladies’ justice. Unlike many of the recipes I have found through my research online, mine contains no lemon juice or vinegar, just milk, rennet and salt, giving it a truly pure and milky flavour. If you haven’t made ricotta before, I strongly recommend that you give it a go, you won’t be disappointed.

Ricotta fatta in casa (Homemade ricotta)

  • 2 litres full fat, good quality milk
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 2 tsp extract of rennet (My mum bought me mine from Lakeland!)

  • Thermometer
  • Muslin cloth
  • A ricotta mould

Pour the milk and cream into a large, heavy based pan on a medium heat, insert the thermometer and watch closely until it reaches 125C. Remove from the heat immediately, add the salt and rennet and stir just for a few seconds using a metal spoon.

Leave the mixture to sit completely still for about an hour. When you return the milk should have formed a jelly-like consistency on top (the curds) and the whey should be sat underneath. With a knife cut the curds into squares and carefully remove them from the whey using a slotted spoon, transferring them to a colander lined with the muslin cloth. Once you have sieved out all the curds, leave them to drain in the colander for about an hour.

Once the curd has dried out a little you can then transfer the ricotta into moulds, wait a few minutes then tip them over onto a plate and serve. If you don’t have a mould, a bowl is just fine.

To really appreciate the purity of fresh ricotta we like to eat ours just on its own but it would also be great on crostini as an antipasto or with honey as a light and creamy dessert.

Buon appetito!

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Pappardelle alla Crema di Funghi Porcini

This month Jacqueline, the author of vegetarian food blog Tinned Tomatoes kindly invited me to take part in the November edition of Pasta Please, a monthly cooking competition, hosted by various foodie bloggers, which revolves around cooking a specifically themed pasta dish. This month Jacqueline chose mushrooms as the theme so I thought what better way to celebrate the end of the porcini season than by making a variation on the classic porcini e pappardelle. Rather than opting for the classic sautéed porcini version, I decided to really go to town on the mushrooms by making a wild mushroom cream to stir through the pasta with some fried porcini pieces for an extra intense flavour. I am well aware that fresh porcini are not the easiest ingredient to come by in the UK so I have also included a variation using dried porcini for the cream and fresh chestnut mushrooms which I’m sure will pack just as much of a punch!

Pappardelle alla Crema di Funghi Porcini

Serves 4
  • 400g pappardelle pasta
  • 200g fresh porcini (or 30g dried soaked in hot water)
  • 150g chestnut mushrooms (or 250g if substituting fresh porcini)
  • 150g button mushrooms
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1 onion
  • 1 carrot
  • 1 celery stick
  • 250g grated parmesan cheese
  • Milk
  • Olive oil
  • Handful of fresh parsley

If using dried porcini soak in enough hot water just to cover them and set to one side. Roughly chop the onion, garlic, carrot and celery and gently fry in a very generous glug of olive oil for about 15 minutes or until soft but without colour.

Add the fresh or soaked porcini, reserving the hot porcini water for later, 150g of chestnut mushrooms and 150g of button mushrooms. Gently fry for another few minutes until the mushrooms have wilted down.

Remove from the heat and puree the mushrooms with an electric hand blender, adding milk or the porcini water until you obtain a silky cream-like consistency. Return to the heat and stir in the parmesan cheese, taste and season with lots of salt and pepper.

Cut the remaining porcini or chestnut mushrooms into chunky pieces and fry off in olive oil adding salt and pepper to taste. All that’s left to do is to cook the pappardelle until it is al dente, drain, reserving a little of the cooking water and return to the pan.

Stir in the mushroom cream, fried mushrooms and if needed, add a little of the pasta water until you obtain a silky consistency. Serve with finely chopped fresh parsley. Buon appetito!

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Sausage and Beans, Italian style...

Despite the many great dishes on offer in the UK, since moving abroad it’s always the simple mid-week meals from my childhood that bring back my memories of great British food. Being from Lincolnshire, sausages were an important part of growing up for me and despite all the delicious Italian food, every now and again I find myself craving a taste of home. With the cold nights beginning to draw in even in sunny Tuscany I decided to put an Italian spin on one of my childhood favourites, sausage and beans, taking inspiration from the classic Florentine recipe, fagioli all’uccelletto.

Made with toscanelli  beans (similar to cannellini), and flavoured with tomato, garlic and sage, fagioli all’uccelleto has got to be one of the best recipes I've discovered since moving to Tuscany. Like the sophisticated European sister of the humble baked bean, when cooked properly, you’ll never want to eat Heinz again!

Fagioli all’uccelletto (Tuscan baked beans)

Serves 4
  • 400g tin of cannellini beans
  • 200g tinned chopped tomatoes
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 branch of sage
  • 2 large cloves of garlic
  • Salt and pepper

Start by gently heating the olive oil in a medium sized pan. Peel the garlic cloves and lightly crush them with the heel of your hand or size of your knife. Once the oil is hot add the crushed garlic and fresh sage. Leave to gently fry for about 5 minutes so that the oil becomes infused and the garlic turns lightly golden in colour.

Add the tomatoes and cook through for another few minutes until the sauce thickens slightly. Drain the beans and rinse thoroughly. Remove the garlic cloves and sage and add the beans.
Season well and cook for about another 5 minutes until the beans have absorbed some of the flavour of the sauce. We served ours with a spicy variety of Italian sausage and lots of crusty bread. Buon appetito!

Saturday, 9 November 2013

My Top 10 Issues with Italian Eating Habits

I know that over the past few weeks I've been giving us Brits (and Americans) a bit of a hard time with my top 10 lists so this week I decided that it was time to pick on the Italians for a change. They may have arguably the best cuisine in the world but, when it comes to food, like all nations, Italians are not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. So here are my top 10 issues with Italian eating habits.

1. Italian food is the be all and end all
It may be a bit of a stereotype but there is some truth to it! For some Italians, it doesn't matter how good a dish is, if it hasn't been a part of the Italian diet for at least 100 years then there will always be something about it which doesn't quite cut the mustard.

2. Desserts
I’m probably going to get into a bit of trouble for saying this but I think Italian desserts are really quite uninspiring! Yes a good panna cotta is nice, and tiramisu is OK I suppose, but for a nation of foodies is that really the best they have to offer? Give me a sticky toffee pudding any day of the week!

3. Cookery shows
Can you believe that in Italy they’ve translated Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson and James Martin’s TV shows into Italian? I can! It’s because, like a lot of Italian TV, most of their cookery shows are really quite clichéd and outdated!

4. Spicy foods
My boyfriend’s father, like many Italians I know, won’t eat anything with any spices in. No cumin, coriander, turmeric, cardamom, nothing! I could maybe understand an aversion to chilli powder but what’s so offensive about cumin!?

5. Supermarkets
Don’t get me wrong, maybe this isn’t entirely bad, but being from the UK, I’m used to the luxury of being able to find any ingredient I need at any time of the year. It can be really frustrating in Italy when I head to the supermarket for something specific and 50% of the time can’t find it because they “haven’t got it in that week”. Apart from pasta that is. They always have pasta…

6. The primo-secondo thing
Almost every restaurant in Italy follows the primo and secondo rule, even Chinese and Indian restaurants. First they bring you your rice or noodles and, when you’ve finished, they bring the meat! Most of the time when I ask for my fried rice and chicken in cashew nuts to be brought at the same time they look at me as if I’ve got two heads! What is that all about?!

7. Foreign food
I couldn’t believe my eyes the first time my boyfriend took me to an Indian restaurant in Pisa and the Italian family on the table next to me, obviously first time customers, were holding up their plates and sniffing the food like gone-off milk. Bizarre!

8. Italianisation
There may be a bit of a pattern may be emerging here but any food which is not of Italian origin is often ‘translated’ so Chinese noodles become ‘spaghetti’, a British pie is a ‘savoury cake’, any rice dish is a ‘risotto’ and so on. Some Italians seem incapable of accepting new terms for new foods since, naturally, they are all simply adaptations of the Italian original!

9. Beer

They may have Peroni, but a lot of Italians have quite a limited experience when it comes to beer. I’ve tried many times to explain that British ale is really quite different from their fizzy lager but they don’t seem to get it. They don’t have cider either, which is a shame. Although my liver is all the better for it!

10. Gravy
You can take the girl out of the north but you can’t take the north out of the girl! I know I’m a saddo but it really upsets me when I cook a roast dinner for Italians and they refer to my gravy as a ‘sauce’! It’s not a sauce, it’s gravy, for a northern girl like me, they are two entirely different things!

I love Italians and Italian food more than anyone I know but I do think that some need to open their eyes a little to the other great foods available to them. Of course this doesn’t apply to all Italians; my Italian boyfriend is probably one of the most adventurous, open minded eaters I’ve ever met and would quite happily eat a different cuisine every night if it were up to him! I do think that things in Italy are changing and that the younger generations are increasingly opening their minds to foreign food but they've still got quite a way to go…

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Zuppa Ricasoli

Looking for a warm and comforting recipe that's incredibly quick and easy to make? Check out my latest article in The Florentine for Zuppa Ricasoli, a Tuscan soup with butter beans, sausage, pancetta and cabbage. I have to say that I usually run a mile when the words 'cabbage' and 'soup' are used in the same sentence but this really was delicious and healthy too! If you can't find Tuscan sausages, anything herby and garlicy, like a Lincolnshire or Toulouse would be great. A lot of supermarkets now stock sausages with fennel which would work fantastically too. Equally, for the cheesy toasts, there's no point in spending a fortune on Asiago cheese, a good cheddar would be just as good!

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Funghi Porcini e Polenta Gratinata

Earlier this week I was beside myself with excitement after coming home and finding a basket full of porcini mushrooms on the kitchen table! A family friend and expert mushroom picker had kindly donated them to us after I had told him how difficult it was to source porcini in the UK and how, although I’d often used dried porcini in my cooking, I had never had the pleasure of being able to cook with fresh ones. After extensively quizzing my boyfriend’s mother on fresh porcini preparation I decided to experiment with a creamy porcini and polenta bake and was not disappointed! Again, this is a really simple recipe that delivers big on flavour. For those of you who are unable to source fresh porcini it would also work well using another variety of mushroom, such as chestnut, mixed with some dried porcini for that extra rich flavour.

Serves 4 as a primo

For the polenta

  • 350g polenta flour
  • 1.5 litres water
  • Large teaspoon of salt

For the filling

  • 300g porcini mushrooms
  • 1 clove finely chopped garlic
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons finely chopped parsley
  • 150 ml double cream
  • Salt pepper
  • Good-quality grated cheese (I used a mix of asiago and parmesan)

To cook the polenta bring the water to the boil in a heavy based saucepan, add the salt and sprinkle in the polenta flour. Keep stirring with a wooden spoon and allow to cook for 40-45 minutes. For those of you who don’t have time for this stage (let’s face it, it’s a bit of a faff really) you can also use quick-cook or ready-made polenta which you can find in most big supermarkets.

When your polenta is cooked, pour it onto a large, clean work surface and spread it out to a 2-3cm thickness and leave to cool. When cold, cut out the disk

s of polenta, one for the base and one for the top of each dish. I used a medium-sized, round oven dish for two people but, if serving for a dinner party, you could also cut out smaller disks to put into individual ramekins as a more elegant way of serving.

Clean your porcini by scraping them with a knife and wiping with a clean tea towel. If your mushrooms are really dirty you can give them a quick rinse under some cold water but be sure to dry them as quickly as possible as washing the mushrooms will make their flavour less intense. Separate the mushroom stalks from the tops by gently twisting them, then slice into fairly chunky pieces.

Heat the olive oil and garlic in a frying pan then add the mushrooms and let them simmer for about 10-15 minutes. Stir in the cream and parsley and turn off the heat then season well with salt and pepper.

Place a disk of polenta in the bottom of your greased dish or ramekin. Add a generous amount of the porcini mix and top with another disk of polenta. Cover with lots of cheese and grill for about 10 minutes or until the top is golden and bubbling!

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Fiori di Zucca Ripieni al Forno

Cooking with courgette flowers is still such a novelty for me since, unless you grow your own, they’re not so easy to come by in the UK. Well, not in Lincolnshire at least! For those of you who have never had the pleasure of eating courgette flowers, I have to say that in terms of flavour you’ve not missed out on much, but what I love about them is that no matter how they're prepared they always look exquisite and are such a versatile receptacle for showcasing great flavour and texture combinations. This summer we grew courgettes in our garden in Pisa and my Italian family's preferred method of preparation was stuffing the flowers with mozzarella and anchovies, then battering and frying them to create the most gorgeous, colourful and crunchy antipasti which brightened up many a mid-week lunchtime!

Having bought some courgette flowers myself this week, I decided to try something new and which didn't involve battering since, unlike my boyfriend's mother, I rarely have the patience required for deep fat frying things on a week day! Instead, I decided to experiment with oven-baking my flowers and after rummaging through the fridge for inspiration, I came up with my delicious and very simple spin on stuffed courgette flowers using a soft Italian cheese called Robiola. Unless you’re living in London, and willing to pay well over the odds, you may struggle to source this particular cheese but anything mild and creamy should do the trick, Philadelphia would probably work equally well! So here they are, my oven-baked courgette flowers...

Serves 6 as a side dish

  • Olive oil
  • 12 courgette flowers
  • 1 medium courgette
  • 100g Parma ham
  • 200g Robiola or similar
  • 1 ball of mozzarella
  • 100g parmesan cheese
  • 400ml Béchamel sauce (not too thick)
  • Salt and pepper

Remove the yellow stigma from inside the courgette flowers and, if still attached, snap off the stems at the bottom too.

Roughly chop the courgette and Parma ham and pan fry in the olive oil over a medium-low heat until the courgette is soft. Transfer to a blender and blend the courgette, ham, robiola and mozzarella to a smooth paste, adding salt and pepper to taste.

Gently open the flowers and stuff them with a large teaspoon of the robiola puree. A piping bag would be ideal for this step however I used a teaspoon and it worked just fine. Lay the stuffed flowers in a baking dish and cover with a plain béchamel sauce (Delia Smith’s all-in-one recipe is perfect for this) until the flowers are evenly coated.

Sprinkle with parmesan and bake in the oven at 180C for about 20 minutes or until the parmesan is bubbling and golden. I served ours with some very simple grilled chicken and a rocket salad, but feel free to use your imagination!