Category Archives: Italian

Baked Pasta with Aubergine, Eggs and Anchovies

bakedpastapI rarely eat pasta, almost never bake it and definitely never switch on the oven it when it’s 33°C outside! Yet, today something made me cook pasta, patiently simmer a sauce with vegetables, boil eggs and prepare a dish which turned out perfect for such a hot summery day. I didn’t follow any recipe, but simply opened my cupboards and improvised, adding this and that. I’m really proud to say I don’t hesitate to post this recipe because I’d love to share it with all of you (with a special dedication to anchovy lovers). It was extraordinary, and even more summery, served with peperoncini sott’olio I made yesterday after MJ, my blogging friend (MJ’s Kitchen) and fellow chilli addict reminded me of them:

Peperoncini sott'olio (Fresh Chillies with garlic and Oil)

Peperoncini sott’olio (Fresh Chillies with garlic and Oil)

TIPS: You can use any vegetables you like or simply have in the fridge, but I finally found aubergine the best suited for this dish.

Obviously, if you don’t like anchovies, skip them or add cut up ham for example.

You can use any easily melting Italian cheese here; smoked scamorza or smoked provola are my favourite (try to find those which are really smoked, i.e. don’t contain “smoke aroma” in the ingredients list).

If you don’t have or don’t want to make peperoncini sott’olio (above), this dish would be delicious with a splash of chilli oil.

Preparation: about 1h30 (but it’s definitely worth it!)

Ingredients (serves four):

750 ml tomato passata or tinned chopped tomatoes or fresh skinned tomatoes simmered until they become a thick sauce

2 tablespoons olive oil

3 big garlic cloves, chopped

1 big aubergine or 1 small courgette+1 small aubergine, cut into bite-sized pieces

1 small sweet pepper (bell pepper or long red pepper), cut into bite-sized pieces

3 hard-boiled eggs

150 g mozzarella, smoked scamorza or smoked provola (or any other melting Italian cheese)

100 g canned anchovies

3 tablespoons capers

salt, pepper, thyme

(grated pecorino or parmezan)

fresh basil

Heat the olive oil.

Fry the garlic for one minute.

Add the sweet pepper and the aubergine (if you use courgette, add it raw to the dish just before baking).

Stir-fry for several minutes.

Add the thyme and 1/2 of the tomato sauce/chopped tomatoes.

Simmer the sauce for about 30 minutes, add salt to taste.

Preheat the oven to 200°C.

In the meantime cook short pasta, taking it out of the water 3 minutes before the time indicated  on the package.

In a baking dish place a layer of pasta, cover with vegetables cooked in tomato sauce.

Add courgettes, if using.

Add the remaining tomato sauce.

Cover with half slices of the eggs, capers, chunks of cheese and grate some pecorino/parmezan on top (if using).

Bake for about 40 minutes or until the cheese is completely melted and slightly golden.

Just before serving sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper and torn basil leaves.

Serve with pepperoncini sott’olio, if you have them.

Chilli Lovers’ Preserving Reminder

Yuzu Koshou 柚子こしょう

Yuzu Koshou 柚子こしょう

In many countries imported fresh chilli is available all year round, but the most delicious aromatic local ripe chilli – the best for preserves – is sold only for a limited time. In my part of Europe the beginning of August is the best moment to start thinking about preserving this fresh aromatic chilli, find the most interesting farmer market stalls, check the stock of empty jars, lids and, most of all, make a list of the fiery treats that will fill one’s pantry or fridge this year.

I have chosen here my favourite fresh chilli pickles and condiments, successfully tested every year (some short-term preserves are made even dozens of times a year). All of them are easy to prepare and guaranteed as addictive. Some can become long-term preserves, some keep for a limited time in the fridge. I hope my fellow chilli lovers will find at least one of them worth trying and those who cannot stand the heat might substitute chilli with sweet peppers. Write to me if you have any questions or problems.

Raimu Koshou (Chilli and Lime Zest Paste)

Raimu Koshou (Chilli and Lime Zest Paste)

Yuzu Koshou 柚子こしょう

Yuzu Koshou 柚子こしょう

Vinegar-Pickled Chillies

Vinegar-Pickled Chillies

Peperoncini sott'olio (Fresh Chillies with garlic and Oil)

Peperoncini sott’olio (Fresh Chillies with garlic and Oil)

Salt Brine Pickled CHilli

Salt Brine Pickled CHilli

Chilli Jelly

Chilli Jelly

Hunan Salt-Pickled Chillies/Erös Pista

Hunan Salt-Pickled Chillies/Erös Pista

Habanero and Oil Paste

Habanero and Oil Paste

Pineapple and Chilli Jelly

Pineapple and Chilli Jelly

Mango and Chilli Sauce

Mango and Chilli Sauce

Peperoncini freschi sott’olio (Fresh Chilli in Olive Oil)

pep_o

If – as I have heard several times – you also think that dried chillies can easily replace fresh ones, you would certainly change your mind after tasting this amazing condiment. Apart from their obvious heat, fresh chillies are naturally sweet, vibrant and fruity. The combination of these qualities combined with garlic and olive oil create here a unique taste and olfactory experience, bringing a sunny touch to any meal or snack. For years I have been enjoying peperoncini sott’olio in my favourite pizzerias and had no idea it would be so easy to make at home (moreover with a luscious result).

Looking for a reliable recipe for something I even didn’t know had a name, I learnt that peperoncini sott’olio (chillies in oil) are a Calabrian specialty (just like “olio santo”, the extremely popular chilli-infused oil) and that every home cook seems to have a different method… There are two major types: chopped fresh chillies or bigger chilli chunks, both preserved in olive oil, sometimes also with garlic (some versions also call for herbs). As the name suggests and as you see at the photograph, chillies dominate the jar and are simply covered with oil, contrary to chilli oil (the only exception is the thick Japanese chilli oil, Taberu Rayu, which has a lot of sediments). I have chosen the chopped pepper version since it was easier and seemed more versatile. Garlic’s presence is not obligatory, but as a big fan, I  would never skip this option. This recipe is a mixture of what I liked most and what I found easiest among all the web sources I visited. If you understand Italian, I found useful tips and remarks for example here and here. I have read some other recipes probably too, but these are the only sources I remember…

I have never tried long-term preserving fresh produce in oil (much trickier and definitely dangerous than for example chilli oil made with dried peppers) and given different methods and ideas of oil preservation I found, for now I decided to content myself with a short-term fridge preserve I intend to finish in maximum ten days. (Given the fact that in the several hours following the preparation I ate half of the jar content only with baguette slices, I don’t think my peperoncini sott’olio will keep that long, anyway…).

TIPS: If you wonder how to use this condiment, as I have mentioned, it’s fantastic on a pizza, but also on a slice of good bread, on pasta, on toast, in a sandwich, on potatoes, grilled meat, fish… and I had it yesterday with a wild mushroom omelette… It was extraordinary!

This is a short-term preserving method, which moreover uses fresh produce and has a very low acidity, so keep it in the fridge.

Vinegar is here not only to add some acidity, always good for preservation, but also to improve the taste. Before adding the vinegar I found this somewhat bland.

Preparation: about 30 – 40 minutes

Ingredients (yields 1 x 200 ml jar (not full)):

10 long fresh red chillies (mine were10-12 cm long and were only slightly hot; I have no idea what the variety is called like; adapt the heat level to your preferences)

1-2 garlic cloves

salt

150 ml olive oil 

1 tablespoon wine vinegar (I have used red wine vinegar)

Wash the chilli peppers.

Discard the stems.

Chop roughly the peeled garlic clove.

Mix both in a food processor (don’t make a pulp though, they should be just very finely chopped) or chop with a knife (wearing gloves!).

Warm an empty frying pan.

Heat the chopped chillies and garlic at very low temperature, constantly stirring, so that they dry a bit and release some of their juices (but don’t dry them too much; they shouldn’t change the colour).

After about 5 minutes pour the oil into the pan.

Fry the chillies at very low temperature for about 20 minutes.

Put aside and when it cools down, add the vinegar and salt to taste.

Put into a jar, close it and keep in the fridge for ten days maximum.

Chillies can be eaten at once, but they improve with time, so try to wait 24 hours before serving.

Tomates Confites (Semi-Dried Tomatoes)

tomatesconfitespOne is not supposed to refrigerate tomatoes since they easily lose their delicate aroma at lower temperatures. I manage to follow this advice, but when the summer becomes particularly hot, there is a risk of ending up with ugly, wrinkled tomatoes. This was the case with my beloved datterini I found last week dying in my pantry. If you have never heard about this variety, datterini (“small dates” in Italian) are ovally shaped, most luscious, sweet, but slightly tangy, highly aromatic mini-tomatoes. The ones I have been buying for months come from an organic farm in Sicily and – strangely – taste equally good all year round. Tere was no way I would throw them away, even in such a critical state, and I thought it was a good occasion to make my very first tomates confites, aka semi-dried tomatoes. Not only has it saved my datterini, but this way I discovered one of the easiest and most extraordinary things one can do with tomatoes.

I first heard about tomates confites reading “Grand Livre de Cuisine: Bistrots, Brasseries et Restaurants” by Alain Ducasse, one of my favourite cookery books. I have adapted the recipe to my tiny tomatoes, leaving the skin and seeds, but the result was thoroughly satisfying. “Semi-dried” seemed the best and simplest English name, but tomates confites are also called “slowly roasted tomatoes”, “slowly baked” or even “moon blush tomatoes”. The method consists of slowly drying seasoned tomatoes at a very low oven temperature until they are well shrivelled, partly dried, but still soft. Semi-dried tomatoes are excellent in salads, on a pizza, in tarts, in pasta, in sandwiches. You can also serve them simply along with olives and other tidbits as an aperitif snack.

Semi-dried tomatoes can be preserved in oil for a bit longer (see below), but since I had only a small bag, I simply refrigerated them as they were, in a closed jar (they stayed fresh for several days). It’s of course and excellent way to save dying, wrinkled, no longer fresh and plump tomatoes, but if you have your own garden, it’s also a great way to deal with a big batch (the tomatoes shrink a lot).

TIPS: The below seasoning and oil amounts should be treated as approximate. Everything depends on your preferences and imagination.

The degree of dryness also depends on your preference (the ones you see above were probably at the limit of semi-dryness).

If you prepare it with big tomatoes, you might want peel them and remove the seeds before drying.

Preparation: 4 hours

Ingredients (yields approximately one 150 ml/5 fl oz loosely packed jar):

1/2 kg (about 1 lb) very ripe mini tomatoes

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon salt

4 finely chopped garlic cloves

1 heaped teaspoon thyme

Preheat the oven to 90°C (194°F).

Cut the tomatoes in half lengthwise.

Put them in a big bowl, add the remaining ingredients and, with your hands, make sure they are well mixed with the tomatoes.

Place the tomatoes on a sheet of baking paper, skin side down, and bake for 4 hours, checking every 30 minutes after three hours if they do not dry too much.

Let them cool down and keep in a closed jar, refrigerated, for maximum a week, or cover them with warm oil and keep in the fridge for two weeks (some people say they keep fresh covered in oil for several months but I haven’t checked it).

Ragù alla bolognese, My Way

If you ask Italian friends or family how they prepare their ragù alla bolognese, everyone will give a slightly different list of ingredients, the cooking stages, and, of course, everyone will claim his or her ragù is the authentic one. When one looks at different recipes from “prestigious” sources, carrot, celery, onion, meat, wine and a long simmering process seem to be the only recurrent elements. As for the rest… Some use white wine, some swear by red only. Some fry in butter, some don’t. Some add milk, others skip it… I quickly realised it’s safer to add “my way” when talking about this ragù and thus avoid quarrels with other passionate cooks.

Apart from the basic obligatory ingredients, there are however certain rules to follow. The first ones are the already mentioned long simmering process and respect of the cooking stages. If you try making it in 30 minutes, putting everything at the same time, you will obtain an edible sauce, but never an excellent one (I have made this experiment, but only once). Moreover, since this dish comes from Emilia Romagna (Bologna is its capital) and since spaghetti is not part of the regional traditions, this type of pasta is the big faux-pas. For me, regardless the traditional approach, this ragù’s texture simply doesn’t fit spaghetti. It tastes much better with shorter pasta or in lasagna.

The recipe I have been making for several years is based on the one from “Ma Little Italy” by Laura Zavan. The dried mushrooms it calls for enrich the flavours, while cloves are the hardly perceptible, magic touch I particularly adore. Thanks to them the dish gains in complexity and elegance. I must confess I have modified the original recipe, or rather impoverished it in what comes to the meat used. I only use ground beef and pork, while Laura Zavan also adds dried ham and ground veal. There is also an atrocity I commit: I always season it with soy sauce. Some Italian readers might have a heart attack reading it, but in my opinion soy sauce incredibly improves the taste. Maybe if I add “my way”, I could be forgiven…

TIPS: Do not try shortcuts or changing the ingredients’ cooking order! This ragù has to be simmered for at least three hours. It can be made in two stages, during two days.

Remember how many cloves you put. You should take them out before serving (unfortunately putting them in a special bag or wrapping in gauze doesn’t work here: ragù is not liquid enough and cloves have to be scattered).

Preparation: 3 hours

Ingredients (serves four):

450 g – 500 g ground meat (half pork, half beef)

1 big carrot

2 long celery sprigs

1 big or two medium onions

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons oil

100 ml red wine

500 ml chicken, meat or vegetable stock

a big handful dried mushrooms (the more aromatic varieties you use, the better, but even dried button mushrooms will be a better option here than the fresh ones)

1 teaspoon thyme

1/2 teaspoon rosemary

2 bay leaves

5 cloves

1 can (400g canned tomatoes)

4 flat tablespoons tomato paste

salt, pepper

soy sauce

Chop the mushrooms and soak them in boiling water (500 ml).

In the meantime chop finely the onion, the carrot and the celery.

Heat the oil and the butter. Fry together the vegetables and the meat until the meat changes the colour.

Pour the wine, stir and wait until it evaporates (the meat will start sticking to the pan).

Season with salt, pepper, add the herbs, the cloves the stock and the mushrooms with their soaking water.

Give a stir, cover and let the dish simmer for one hour.

After one hour add the tomatoes and the tomato paste and let the ragù simmer for one more hour.

At the end adjust the taste and, if you dare, add 3-4 tablespoons soy sauce.

Before serving take out the bay leaves and cloves. (Biting into a clove is a very unpleasant experience).