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!

Sunday, 6 October 2013

10 reasons why Italians are so slim

Before moving to Italy, I always thought a big downside of leaving the UK was that I could kiss goodbye to my size 1o figure; with the pizza, the pasta, the wine and daily trips to the gelateria, gaining weight seemed inevitable. During my first month in Italy, I did put on some weight from gorging on all the amazing food on offer, but then something quite unexpected happened, my weight gradually started to go down until it eventually plateaued at about half a stone less than when I arrived! For some time I couldn't work it out but then I started to reflect on the Italian diet. Italy has the second lowest obesity rate in Europe after Romania at just 9.3%, whereas, in the UK, obesity is currently at 23.9%. Yes, there is a lot of wonderful food in Italy, some of it rather carb-heavy to say the least but is it really any worse than what I’d been eating back in the UK? And had my change in lifestyle affected my eating habits? After giving it some thought I came up with 10 reasons why I think Italians manage to eat so well and yet stay so slim, so here they are…

1. They eat at lunch
A lot of Italians, including my boyfriend’s family, eat their main meal at lunchtime meaning that they have all day to burn off the energy. Having a substantial meal early on in the day also reduces the temptation to snack, so come 4 pm  I no longer fight to resist having a sneaky biscuit (or 5) with my afternoon tea.

2. They have primo and secondo
The format of primo and secondo means that Italians first eat a small amount of carbohydrates (the primo) and then fill up on meat and vegetables (the secondo), ensuring that their diet is balanced. The pause between courses also gives you more time to register that you’re full meaning that you don’t overdo it and then regret it 10 minutes later when you’re feel like you've eaten the Christmas turkey!

3. They eat less butter
Italians don’t butter their bread nor use butter for cooking anywhere near as often as us Brits. It may seem like a small change but over an extended period of time it could really make a difference. Saying that, I still haven’t quite come to terms with the idea of an un-buttered sandwich!

4. They have less of a sweet tooth
For a country that’s in love with food Italians certainly seem to lose their mojo a little when it comes to desserts. Puddings are rarely served at home and the selection of traditional Italian desserts is extremely limited when compared to Italy’s extensive savoury repertoire. Tiramisu and panna cotta are great but when that’s about all that’s on offer, it gets easier to say no after a while!

5. They eat less processed foods
Probably the most fundamental point of all is that Italians make most of their food from scratch. The ready-meal aisle of the supermarket quite simply doesn't exist in Italy; after all, what could be quicker to cook up for dinner than a bowl of spaghetti? I showed the Dolmio microwavable pasta advert to my Italian friends and they thought it was a joke!

6. They have a healthier attitude to food
Fad dieting is nowhere near as big in Italy as it is in the UK. Rather than binging and dieting, a constant and moderate diet is favoured by most. When I suggested cutting out carbs to my boyfriend his reaction was, ‘but a carb-free diet makes people grumpy’. I guess he had a point…!

7. They don't drink as much
Another hugely influential factor has got to be the booze. Italians generally don’t drink outside of meals and, when they do, they only have one or two. There is still quite a stigma attached to heavy drinking in Italy, especially for women, so whilst for Brits having a few too many and staggering home at the end of the night might be funny, for Italians it’s probably an embarrassing story that they’d rather keep to themselves. The size of a glass of wine in Italy is also much smaller, to the extent that my Mum once thought the glass our waiter had poured her was just a taster!

8. They have a warmer climate
Cold weather undoubtedly plays a part in increasing appetite so when the summer in Italy lasts for so much longer and the temperature is so much hotter it’s no wonder they don’t eat as much. As lovely and refreshing as a rocket salad is, I’m not sure it’s ever going to cut it for dinner during a British winter!

9. They have to get their bodies out in public
On a related topic, the fact that, for 3 months a year, Italians regularly go to the beach with friends and family is a huge motivation to keep an eye on their weight. In the UK we can quite happily stuff our faces knowing that, with the help of some loose clothing, our friends and neighbours will never see the effects on our body (thank goodness)!

10. The bella figura
Italians place a huge amount of importance on appearance and are a nation that celebrates beauty. With fashion brands such as Gucci, Prada and Dolce and Gabanna at the heart of Italian style, maintaining a slim figure is all part of the Italian bella figura. For us Brits, appearance, although important, does not define a person in the same way as it does for Italians. So although of course it’s nice to be slim, maybe we should celebrate the fact that in the UK, it’s OK to indulge in that third glass of wine, to order the jumbo fish and chips or to have an extra biscuit with your cup of tea… after all, you only live once!

Monday, 30 September 2013

La Bersagliera

This weekend I went with a group of friends to my very favourite pizzeria. Bearing in mind that, living in Pisa, I have over 120 pizzerias right on my doorstep, almost every time I go for pizza with friends we take the 20km drive through a series of tiny villages to reach the pizzeria La Bersagliera on the outskirts of Lucca. The surroundings are not in any way spectacular, it is set right on the edge of the SS12, surrounded by residential buildings. Similarly, the interior leaves a lot to be desired with plain white walls, a series of camping-style, long, wooden tables and benches and a vast array of ornaments and trinkets that make you feel as though you are an intruder in an old lady’s retirement flat. When it comes to the service, things aren't much better, stories of the 'like it or lump it' attitude of the dinnerlady-style waitress have become local legends. We warn the two newcomers in our group to keep their heads down and not to ask too many questions! When eating at the Bersagliera you can expect to be crammed in like a sardine, presented with a menu that consists only of pizza, one variety of wine and one variety of beer and then to wait between 40 – 90 minutes for your food to arrive. Yet the thing that keeps us and so many others coming back time and time again is, of course, the incredible pizza.

The first thing that makes the pizzas so great is the toppings. The Bersagliera specialises in sourcing Calabrian ingredients, which are not so easily found in other pizzerias, such as Calabrian sausage, sopressata, sorriso (a blend of chilies), rosa marina (tiny fish in a spicy sauce) and the best olives I've ever tasted in my life. Then, there is the pizza base itself which is beautifully fresh, salty and the perfect compromise between the thin Tuscan base and the deep pizza from Naples. The best part of all is the generosity of the portions, the pizzas are easily twice the size of a standard pizza and are covered with an abundance of toppings. Most people don’t even come close to finishing a full pizza in one sitting but, for me, being able to take the rest home and eat it the next day is one of the biggest draws!

Edoardo was very happy with his calzone!
Despite its many flaws, we have also come to love the ‘alla buona’, rustic atmosphere that the Bersagliera has to offer and look forward to our monthly trips where we stuff ourselves with delicious spicy pizza. Everybody has their usual order which they go for every time, mine is the Tarantella pizza, a combination of Calabrian sausage, sorriso, scamorza cheese, aubergine and olives. This time, however, I decided to make the bold decision of adding mascarpone to my order which was a great success; the creamy cooling mascarpone worked perfectly with the spiciness of the sausage and the sorriso.

Pizza Tarantella con mascarpone
In tribute to my new pizza topping combo, I decided to make some n’duja (pronounced un-doo-ya) and mascarpone pasta for lunch today. Super simple, super quick and super tasty!

Maccheroni con n’duja e mascarpone

Serves 4 
  • 400g maccheroni rigate
  • 1tbsp n’duja sausage
  • 1tbsp mascarpone
  • Parsley for serving

Cook the pasta in boiling salted water until it is al dente then drain, keeping to one side some of the pasta water. Stir the n’duja and mascarpone into the pasta, adding a little of the water until you get a smooth, creamy sauce. Garnish with a sprinkle of chopped parsley. It’s a simple as that! Buon appetito! 

You can visit La Bersagliera in via Pisana, 2136, Lucca, Italy

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Gnocchi alla Sorrentina

Last week my friend Valeria and I decided to organise a dinner party inspired by some homemade ingredients that she had brought back from her hometown of Bono in Sardinia. Her father had cured some prosciutto and sausage which we served as antipasti, along with some Sardinian cheese and typical Sardinian bread called Pane Carasau. For the primo we decided on Gnocchi alla Sorrentina, a dish from Sorrento, near Naples, in an attempt use up the last of the season’s tomatoes. Of course you could cheat a little and buy your gnocchi ready-made but I wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity for a master class in making fresh gnocchi so we decided to start completely from scratch.

There are in fact many different varieties of gnocchi including gnocchi di farina (made with bread and flour), gnocchi di polenta (with polenta flour), gnocchi di castagne (with chestnut flour) and many types of gnocchi with added ingredients such as spinach, pumpkin or cheese. The recipe for gnocchi alla Sorrentina, however, calls for the classic potato gnocchi, which was perfect for my first gnocchi-making experience! Since we had two coeliac guests for dinner, we replaced the wheat flour with a gluten-free mix but for my non-coeliac readers, here is the method for the classic potato gnocchi:

Note: Classic potato gnocchi should be made without egg but most Italians add at least one to ensure that the mixture binds together well for a smooth result.

Serves 4

For the gnocchi:
  • 100g flour
  • 400g potatoes (a floury variety)
  • 1 egg
  • Salt
Wash the potatoes and put them into salted boiling water with the skins on. Leave them to boil for around 30 minutes or until you can easily pierce them with a knife, then drain and leave them to cool down a little.

Once sufficiently cooled, you can then begin to peel the skin off the potato. Cooking the potatoes with the skins on makes them incredibly easy to peel and also gives them a richer, earthier flavour. When all the skin has been removed, pass the warm potato through a potato ricer or mash thoroughly. Do not use a blender as the potato will become heavy and gelatinous.

Tip the mashed potato onto a floured surface, make a hole in the middle and fill it with the flour, egg and around a teaspoon of salt. Gently incorporate all the ingredients until you create a ball of dough. Do not over-work the mix as the gnocchi need to be fluffy and light.

Divide the dough into 3 pieces and roll them out into long cylinders about 2cm wide, re-flouring the surface as required. Cut the cylinders into 2cm long pieces using a sharp, floured knife.

You can then shape each gnocc0 (gnocco is the singular form of gnocchi, one gnocco, two gnocchi) by lightly rolling it with your thumb against a ridged surface, slightly twisting your thumb at the last minute to create a small fold in the back. We used a gnocchi board to create this effect but you can also get great results by just rolling the gnocchi across the prongs of a fork. Continue this process, placing the finished gnocchi on a tea towel until you have used all of the dough. If you don't have the time or patience for shaping your gnocchi don't worry, a rustic rectangular or even round gnocco is perfectly acceptable, you can even just squash them a little bit with a fork!

To cook the gnocchi simply drop them into salted, boiling water and drain once they begin to float to the top, this should only take about 2-3 minutes so make sure you keep an eye on it! If making the gnocchi alla Sorrentina, make sure you have prepared your sauce (see below) before cooking the gnocchi!

For the Sorrentina sauce:
  • 500g fresh tomato sauce
  • Basil to garnish
  • 250g buffalo mozzarella (cut into 2cm cubes)
  • 100g grated parmesan
Before cooking the gnocchi, pre-heat your oven to 180C. Take an oven-proof dish and line the base and edges with a little fresh tomato sauce and place 1/3 of the mozzarella in the bottom. If you can’t find buffalo mozzarella, normal is fine. Lining your dish with tomato sauce will ensure that the gnocchi won’t stick to the sides.

Cook your gnocchi as above. Note: To save time, do not salt the water until it is fully boiling as salted water takes longer to come to the boil.

Return the drained gnocchi to the pan and mix with the remaining tomato sauce, another 1/3 of the mozzarella and half of the parmesan. Pour the tomato-coated gnocchi into the baking dish, sprinkle over the remaining parmesan and mozzarella and bake until the cheese is bubbling and golden brown on top.

Garnish with basil leaves and eat it while it’s hot! As you can see, it certainly went down well with our dinner guests!

Gluten-free gnocchi

100g gluten-free flour (we used Schar)
400g potatoes
2 eggs (plus one extra yolk if your mixture doesn’t seem to be coming together)

Wash the potatoes and put them into salted boiling water with the skins on. Leave them to boil for around 30 minutes or until you can easily pierce them with a knife then drain and leave them to cool down a little. Once sufficiently cooled, you can then begin to peel the skin off the potato. Cooking the potatoes with the skins on makes them incredibly easy to peel and also gives them a richer, earthier flavour. When all the skin has been removed, pass the warm potato through a potato ricer or mash thoroughly. Do not use a blender or the potato will become heavy and gelatinous.

Tip the mashed potato onto a floured surface, make a hole in the middle and fill it with the flour, egg and around a teaspoon of salt. Gently incorporate all the ingredients until you create a ball of dough. As the flour is gluten-free, you will need to knead for a little longer than when using normal flour in order to create some elasticity to the dough.

Divide the dough into 3 pieces and roll them out into long cylinders about 2cm wide, re-flouring the surface as required. Cut the cylinders into 2cm long pieces using a sharp, floured knife.

You can then shape each gnocc0 (gnocco is the singular form of gnocchi, one gnocco, two gnocchi) by lightly rolling it with your thumb against a ridged surface, slightly twisting your thumb at the last minute to create a small fold in the back. We used a gnocchi board to create this effect but you can also get great results by just rolling the gnocchi across the prongs of a fork. Continue this process, placing the finished gnocchi on a tea towel until you've used all of the dough. If you don't have the time or patience for shaping your gnocchi don't worry, a rustic rectangular or even round gnocco is perfectly acceptable, you can even just squash them a little bit with a fork!

To cook the gnocchi simply drop them into salted, boiling water and drain once they begin to float to the top, this should only take about 2-3 minutes so make sure you keep an eye on it!  If making the Gnocchi alla Sorrentina, make sure you have prepared your sauce before cooking the gnocchi!

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Coffee Crisis

For those of you who read my post about the 10 Italian cooking commandments, I'm afraid I can feel another moan coming on, this time directed at another Italian rip-off, it is of course coffee chains. On his first visit to a UK coffee shop my boyfriend asked me a series of questions such as, 'What’s a Mochaccino?’, ‘And a syrup shot?' and ‘ARE YOU JOKING? £1.80 for an Espresso?!’ It's something I'd never given too much thought to before but, reflecting on this experience, I decided that another sin-list was in order so here are my top 10 issues with British/American (Italian) coffee...

 1. Variety – Whenever I step into a UK coffee shop I’m always painfully aware of being worlds apart from my home in Italy where, after 10am, nobody orders anything other than 'a coffee please’ because, after all, what type of coffee could you possibly want to drink post-breakfast time other than an espresso?! Starbucks proudly advertises that there are over 87,000 different drink combinations for their customers to choose from whereas, in Italy, if you’re able to find a drinks menu at all, it’s likely to look something like this:

Which looks a little sparse next to the Costa menu:

And that’s before reading the specials board! What ever happened to enjoying the simple things in life?

2. Flavoured coffee – On a similar note, my second issue with coffee chains is the different syrups, sauces and sprinkles you can add to your coffee to make sure your blood sugar levels are always kept sky high. Why on earth would you want to buy a coffee only to pump it with sugar and flavourings so that you can effectively completely mask any hint of the original taste? It’s like they’ve created a way to make people who hate coffee think that they like it by giving them something that resembles a knickerbocker glory!

3. Frappucino – Ah, the frappucino, yet another imposter on the menu and a clever strategy which now means that even people who don’t like hot drinks don’t miss out on regularly handing over their cash to the coffee chain giants. A chilled coffee, the caffè shakerato, does exist in Italy but there are no plastic glasses, straws or whipped cream in sight. And don’t even get me started again on the flavours!

4. Mocha – Another problem I have is that every coffee chain serves the drink mocha as an authentic Italian beverage when in fact coffee with chocolate is called a Bicerin and can only be found near Turin. The word moka does exist in Italy but refers to the gas-heated coffee makers used by most Italian families to make their espresso at home. No chocolate involved I’m afraid.

5. The Basic coffee – In spite of everything, I could probably forgive all the coffee-mutilation if chains could actually get the basics right. My biggest issue is that even a simple espresso is generally burnt and a bit like drinking dirty dishwater. Overall, Caffè Nero probably comes the closest to recreating an authentic coffee, but as my Italian friends point out, it’s the best of a bad bunch and still very hit and miss.

6. Size – Another issue I have is the size of coffee chain coffees. Not only do they have three, sometimes four, size choices, it seems that no matter what you order it’s always enormous! I may be the only one here, but when I order a cappuccino in the morning I don’t want a pint of it! In Italy, the sizes are pretty standard since it's an essential part of the composition of the coffee; just as you wouldn’t put water in a caffelatte, you wouldn’t serve it in pint-sized mug either.

7. Price – It’s enough to make you choke on your iced skinny caramel latte. I don’t think I’m alone when I say that the price for a coffee these days is bordering on daylight robbery. The average espresso in Italy costs around €1 (84p), so how can Costa justify charging up to £2.20?

8. Coffee to go – Another thing that really annoys me is how takeaway coffee has become an Americanised fashion accessory, a symbol that you are too ‘busy’ even to stop and have a drink. My message to these people, get out of bed 10 minutes earlier in the morning! You don’t see people on the tube with a bowl of Cheerios for goodness sake! It’s also getting worse with automatic coffee machines in supermarkets and now even coffee drive-throughs –what is the world coming to!?

9. Pronunciation of latte – Sometimes I think if I hear another person order a lar-tay I'll scream! It’s pronounced lat-tay, the Italian word for milk, so to my southerners readers please stop trying to make it sound posh, it doesn’t work! I also find it quite confusing when ordering a latte, am I ordering a caffelatte or a latte macchiato? Caffelatte is milk with less foam and more coffee, on the other hand, a latte macchiato (meaning stained milk) is milk with a lot of foam and a dash of coffee, often served in a jug on the side. Either way, whenever I order a latte in the UK I never seem to get either!

10. When we drink coffee and why – My final point is not so much of a criticism but more of an observation. It seems that we Brits usually drink coffee for very different reasons to Italians. For us a coffee is often accompanied by a slice of cake, comfy chairs and friends. In Italy on the other hand, after breakfast, coffee is normally just a quick fix to keep you going through the day or to aid digestion, gone in a couple of sips and usually consumed whilst still standing at the bar.

But how do you like to drink your coffee? And what coffee do you like to drink? Please post your comments below and I promise I won’t judge the milky, syrup, sprinkle drinkers out there!

Monday, 16 September 2013

Pesto presto!

I love making pesto. I find it’s one of those things that’s just nowhere near as good when you buy it in the supermarket. It needs to be made fresh and eaten quickly, preferably with a large serving of pasta or generously spread onto some toasted bread. There’s also such a lack of choice when buying ready-made pesto; unless you’re shopping somewhere uber-posh, there’s generally the ‘green’ one and, if you’re lucky, the ‘red’ one and that’s about it. I have to say that things have improved a little on the shop-bought-pesto front since I moved to Pisa but despite trying pretty much every brand and variety going, I still haven’t find one that comes close to beating homemade. And I suppose when it’s so quick and easy to make, why not just make it yourself?

Today I decided to put to the test just how easy it is to make a good pesto. The first reason why making pesto is so easy is because you can put pretty much anything you want in it. The word ‘pesto’ in Italian comes from the verb pestare which roughly translates as to ‘mash or ‘pound’ so as long as the ingredients are pretty well ground up, almost anything can qualify as a pesto. Of course the classic ‘green’ pesto, pesto alla Genovese, is made with basil, garlic, pine nuts, parmesan, pecorino and olive oil, but other famous varieties include pesto alla Siciliana, pesto alla Trapanese and pesto alla Calabrese. These recipes originate from different areas of Italy; the Sicialiana, from Sicily, features ricotta and tomatoes, the Trapanese, from Trapani, has added tomatoes and almonds and the Calabrese, from Calabria, is made with roasted peppers. The problems is when you have to make a special trip to the supermarket to buy all the ingredients for a traditional pesto recipe it all becomes a bit of a faff and not quite so quick and easy after all. That’s why the recipe for my easy pesto is a little less specific:

1.       Some kind(s) of nut
2.       Some kind(s) of herb/leaf/vegetable
3.       Some kind(s) of cheese
4.       Some kind(s) of oil
5.       Common sense

You can use pine nuts, almonds, walnuts, cashews, basil, garlic, rocket, parsley, tomatoes, peppers, parmesan, pecorino, ricotta, mascarpone, olive oil, chilli oil, walnut oil, truffle oil….the list is endless. Of course a little common sense does have to be applied, I’m not sure walnuts, peanuts, coriander, iceburg lettuce, cheddar, Philadelphia and vegetable oil would make for a successful combination, but with a bit of thought you can create something really tasty in a matter of seconds and proudly be able to say ‘I made it myself’.

Today I raided my kitchen and found the below ingredients which I decided could be pesto-able:

Parmesan, pecorino romano and pecorino pugliese

Basil, tomatoes and rocket

Pine nuts, almonds and walnuts

Although tempted to go for a walnut and rocket combination that I’d seen on a restaurant menu a few days ago, I decided to use up some of our tomatoes and go for my take on a pesto alla Trapanese with pine nuts, almonds, basil, tomato, garlic, parmesan and olive oil. In terms of quantities, to serve 2, I normally go with a small handful of nuts, a large handful of herbs, a medium handful of chopped tomato, a small clove of garlic (unless you like it really garlic-y), a generous wedge of cheese and a tablespoon of olive oil.  Now technically, to get an authentic pesto, you should then grind the ingredients using a pestle and mortar but since I was going for a quick and easy version I cheated and used a food processor. Particularly when using basil, this is not the condoned Italian practice; I was pulled up just a few days ago by my boyfriend’s mother for cutting rather than tearing the basil for my caprese salad! Once the ingredients are blended to your desired texture, personally I like my pesto quite smooth and creamy, all that’s left to do is adjust the seasoning. Don’t worry if your pesto looks too thick, you can keep some of the pasta water to one side at the end of cooking and add it until you get the right consistency.

In summary, I can now confirm that making homemade pesto is incredibly easy. Preparing the ingredients, putting them in the food processor, wizzing them up, seasoning and pouring into a bowl took me a grand total of 1 minute 58 seconds. Jamie Oliver’s 15 minute meals eat your heart out! I’m afraid I don’t have a picture of the pasta because I was so hungry I completely forgot to take a photo until about two thirds of the way through my lunch so I’m afraid you’ll have to make do with just the pesto!

Friday, 13 September 2013

The 10 Italian Cooking Commandments...

Anyone who reads newspapers, Twitter or Facebook will have seen that many articles have been doing the rounds this week regarding The Academia Barilla's release of The 10 Italian Cooking Commandments which are as follows:

  1. You shall not sip cappuccino during a meal!
  2. Risotto and pasta are not a side dish
  3. You shall not add oil to pasta water
  4. Ketchup on pasta: please, don't
  5. Spaghetti Bolognese? No way, it's tagliatelle!
  6. Chicken Pasta: not in Italy
  7. "Ceasar Salad"
  8. The red and white checked tablecloth is only a stereotype!
  9. "Fettucine Alfedo" are popular only overseas
  10. You shall respect tradition and what Italian mamma says
Call me a food snob, but my first problem with this list is that it doesn't cover even half of the embarrassing Italian food faux pas that I am constantly having to explain to confused, and often horrified, Italians. I remember being mortified the first time I brought my Italian boyfriend to meet my family in the UK and my brother insisting that we go to the popular Italian chain restaurant Prezzo (which translates as price or cost in Italian). Aside from the slightly bizarre name choice, he was deeply disturbed by some of the 'Italian' dishes on the menu. Based on some of the Italian-chain restaurant horrors (they know who they are!), we decided to compile some commandments of our own which include:
  1. One does not stuff their pizza crust. Not with cheese, and particularly not with hot dog sausages! I mean, come on people, that's just wrong!
  2. Thou shalt not put chicken, steak, salmon, pineapple, sweetcorn, jalapenos, spicy minced beef, BBQ sauce and god knows what else on a pizza!
  3. Thou shalt not use thousands of ingredients. The whole secret to Italian food is that they keep it simple so stop over-gilding the lily! Pasta with gorgonzola, chicken, pancetta, leeks, broccoli and parsley* or pizza with Sausage, N'duja, chillies, roquito peppers, red & yellow peppers, mozzarella, rocket, pesto, oregano and grana padano**, it's a bit much don't you think?!
  4. There is no such thing as 'Italian nachos'. Nachos are Mexican. They always have been and they always will be, no matter how much pesto you put on top.
  5. Similarly, garlic bread is not Italian either. A baguette is french for starters! Garlic bruschetta maybe, garlic bread, no way.
  6. The tricolore salad does not contain avocado. In fact, they don't even really use avocados in Italy as they're considered a tropical fruit. The green part of the salad is meant to be basil.
  7. Carbonara does not include, onions, mushrooms, garlic or cream. And it's made with pancetta, not bacon.
  8. Pepperoni is not a type of sausage. In Italian, the word peperoni actually means peppers (yes, as in the vegetable).
  9. On a similar note,  restaurant staff could at least do some research into the correct pronunciation of common words such as bruschetta (pronounced brus-ket-ta) or prosciutto (pro-shoot-toe).
  10. Finally, the biggest misunderstanding of all has probably got to be regarding the organization of an Italian menu. It's completely different to that of any other nation in that they have antipasti (bruschetta, meats, cheeses etc) then a primo (usually either pasta or rice) then secondo (fish, meat or vegetarian dish) and contorni (side dishes of vegetables or salad) followed by fruit, desert and, finally, coffee. I'm not saying you have to order them all but it could at least be acknowledged that they exist!

It's not that I'm a some crazy purist when it comes to Italian food, I love a bit of fusion cooking as much as the next person, what annoys me is that these restaurants, supermarkets and even TV chefs put the label of 'Italian' on something that is quite clearly not Italian at all! I almost have respect for places like Domino's because, although they may have taken the pizza and completely butchered it, at least they don't claim to be making 'authentic' Italian food. Just yesterday, I cooked an 'English Carbonara' for my Italian family and they loved it. My problem isn't with adapting recipes, it's with the fact that the British nation seems to have had the wool pulled over their eyes not only in terms of Italian food, but foreign cuisine in general.

*Fusilli gorgonzola - Prezzo
** Pizza Calabrese - Pizza Express

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Gluten-free Baking

My boyfriend Michele had an operation this weekend so to cheer him up I promised to make him a cake of his choice. Now, being a coeliac (I know, an Italian coeliac, how depressing!), it's always a bit of a gamble when I try and bake for Michele. My biggest dilemma is usually whether to try to adapt a normal cake recipe using gluten-free flour or whether to go for a tried and tested gluten-free version. The problem with this second option is that often the types of gluten-free flour vary enormously from recipe to recipe so gluten-free baking is never really an exact science. For this reason I was sold when I stumbled upon this Gluten-free lemon drizzle cake recipe on BBC Good Food which uses ground almonds and mashed potato instead of flour. I have to say that despite having over 100 positive reviews, I was a little sceptical about using potato as I thought it might be a little stodgy and, well, potato-ey, but I have to say I was extremely impressed with the results! I was left with a light, fluffy and extremely moist sponge with a sweet hint of lemon but nothing too over-powering. I would go as far as saying that the drizzle topping over gilded the lily really as the sponge was already perfectly sweet and moist without it. My Italian family, who normally seem a little under-enthused by British baking due to its high butter content, also seemed to enjoy my 'English cake' as they finished it all within 2 days!

So thank you Jane Hornby for posting such a great recipie that I'm sure to make and adapt again and again!

Friday, 6 September 2013


Check out this monster of a tomato I picked from the garden today! 

My boyfriend recently observed that Italians growing tomatoes is probably the equivalent of Brits growing their own potatoes. He came to this conclusion whilst my uncle was showing him around his vegetable patch in Cambridge which, like most British veg gardens, is largely dominated by potatoes and other root vegetables. "The thing is, with potatoes you can really taste the difference if they're home grown." said my uncle "With things like tomatoes, they really don't taste much different to the ones you can buy in the supermarket." I see that Michele tries to hide a smirk at this remark. He thinks it's hilarious how obsessed us Brits are with our potatoes and how many different varieties you can find in the supermarket, as opposed to Italy, where the only choice seems to be between big potatoes....or small potatoes...! But however obsessed we may be with potatoes, when it comes to tomatoes, Italians are ten times worse! And I have to say after tasting home grown, I'm not sure I can ever go back to buying the tough, pallid and scarily uniform product that in the UK we call a salad tomato.

In our garden we grow pomodori marmande which originate from France but are also very popular in northern Italy and can be easily identified by their ribbed exterior. They're absolutely great for using in salads, capresi, bruschette etc. because they're mainly flesh and hardly any seeds or water so you get a lot of tomato for your money and the texture is very meaty and sweet. As with most things in our garden, we have a bit of a tomato surplus at the moment so Anna has been making pan after pan of her special tomato sauce to put into jars for the winter. Here is her recipe:

Anna's Sugo di Pomodoro Fresco al Basilico


1kg large tomatoes (the sweeter the tomatoes, the better the sauce!)
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
A handful of basil


  1. Wash the tomatoes, cut them in half from top to bottom and remove the green part of the core.
  2. Take a bowl and squeeze the tomato halves to remove any seeds and excess water.
  3. Place the now seed-free tomatoes into a large pan and leave to soften on a low heat for about 15 minutes.
  4. When the tomatoes are soft, remove from the heat and pass the tomatoes through a food mill to remove the skins and create a smooth sauce. If you don't have a food mill you could also try to use a sieve but it may take a while!
  5. Once passed through the food mill the sauce can then be return to the heat to gently cook for a further 15 minutes 
  6. Finally, season the sauce adding the salt, olive oil and torn basil. If your sauce is very sharp, you can also add a pinch of sugar. Stir thoroughly and remove the sauce from the heat.
Buon appetito!

Note: Sugo di pomodoro fresco is the most pure form of tomato sauce. You can then use this sauce to make variations by adding mince and diced vegetables to make a ragu', chilli and garlic to make pasta all'arrabiata or aubergine, garlic and mozzarella to make pasta alla norma. I personally love it on its own with spaghetti and a few shavings of Cacioricotta on top.