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 B├ęchamel 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 b├ęchamel 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!