Sep 29, 2009

Scapece di Vasto recipe

Funny how it happens. Saffron, being that orange-yellow flavoring, food coloring, and dye made from the dried stigmas of a crocus, is required in enormous numbers of flowers to produce a small quantity of the large red stigmas used for the spice. The fragrant zafferano is native to Abruzzo, but oddly enough, it is hardly ever used in the region's local cuisine. The highly prized quality saffron–with its incredibly distinct flavor–is produced in the province of Aquila but is mostly exported to be processed and mixed with other types of a lesser quality elsewhere, because the are no local Abruzzi saffron refineries. Huh.

And so the unique goods growing on the slopes of the Abruzzi mountains end up being used for flavoring creamy Milanese risottos, delicious Spanish paellas and redolent French bouillabaisses.

The only local dish in which saffron is employed in Abruzzo, is the traditional "scapece" from Vasto, in the Chieti province.

The Vastesi are a gentle breed. You can be so bold as to tell them their brodetto fish stew is not the world's best (they'll smile feigning aloofness), but don't mess with their scapece, calling it bland. The dignified citizens of Vasto are very proud of their bold scapece. And rightly so.

Palates would have to be irreversibly tainted by fast– and processed foods not to notice this extraordinary dish. A triumph of flavors and redolent perfumes of the Mediterranean Sea fused into one terrific gran finale. A true taste bud surprise for even the most demanding and expert gourmand.

The traditional Vasto recipe is commonly handed down in families from generation to generation. And since I am now working here in the heart of Abruzzo, I thought I could share the recipe for scapece di Vasto.

1 Kg (2.2 lbs) white fish (possibly thornback ray or smooth hound)
500 g (1.1 lbs) mixed mollusks and crustaceans
1 good pinch of saffron stigmas
1 cup fine quality white wine vinegar
1 small white onion, finely chopped
2 fistfuls of all-purpose flour
Olive oil for frying
A chilled bottle of Trebbiano d'Abruzzo

Clean and gut the fish and then cut it into small chunks. Trim and clean the octopus and other mollusks, and remove the carapace from the shrimp. Cut these in small pieces too and roll it all in the flour, fry in a skillet for about 3 minutes, and then park briefly on a paper towel to absorb excess grease.

Warm the vinegar over a mild flame, remove the pot from the stove just before it boils, and break the saffron filaments into it.

Sweat the chopped onion in some olive oil, and set aside when translucent.

Make layers of the fried mixed fish chunks in a high rimmed container (preferably glass) dousing them with the warm aromatic vinegar, drench each layer with a splash of Trebbiano and some sautéed onions. Marinade for 8 days, at least, and then serve like the Vasto fisherman would, with crusty bread, a seaside view and good conversation. Don't forget the leftover Trebbiano...

Buon appetito.

Sep 24, 2009

Be my guest - Bobotie

I am honored to introduce today's cook. Tessa is a dear friend and her blog, An Aerial Armadillo is a fantastic fairytale world of art, culture and good taste.

Tessa, the kitchen is yours.

A Cultural Potpourri
As an avid reader and admirer of Lola’s splendiferous Aglio, Olio & Peperoncino blog since its inception, I was absolutely tickled pink to be invited by her to be a guest chef for a day. It is truly an honour especially since Lola is a culinary magician who transports us – with enormous flair and eloquence – to her Italian ‘headquarters’ in the Eternal City and shares with us the culture, traditions, art, food and vibrant history of that glorious country.

Some of you know me as that chronically homesick African who was whisked away from her beloved land quite recently by a deliciously handsome Englishman to live for a while in his country. Thing is, you see, the Englishman in question is my husband of 30 something years and he feels – probably quite justifiably – that it’s his turn to spend time in the country of his birth after having lived most of his adult life in mine. Problem is that no matter how hard I try, I just can’t rid myself of that niggling ache for home! So rather than sit and mope, I try to bring Africa to England as often as I possibly can by painting my memories of the people and places I love so much. I also love to cook, so the invitation to be guest chef on Lola’s blog is a wonderfully serendipitous opportunity to share a typically South African recipe with you.

Although I've lived in many parts of Africa, Cape Town is where I was born and raised so it seems appropriate that I should take you there. Please, come with me to that beautiful city nestled in the curve of it’s famous mountain and allow me to introduce you to the colourful Bo-Kaap area and to the Cape Malay people who live there.

The Cape Malay Quarter, or 'Bo-Kaap' as it is known locally, sprawls along the slopes of Signal Hill and presents a scenario of enduring historic and cultural significance. With their soft, caramel skins and wide smiles, the Cape Malay people are a prized and proud element of the South African culture.

The first group of Malaysian state prisoners landed on the shores of South Africa from Java and the neighbouring Indonesian islands in the late 1600's. Many more followed in the years 1727 until 1749. Not only did this proud and attractive people bring with them the Moslem faith and fine architecture, they also brought with them a unique cookery style, introducing exciting mixtures of pungent spices that has had a heady influence on traditional South African cuisine. Indeed, the Malay-Portuguese words such as bobotie (a curried ground beef and egg custard dish), sosatie (kebabs marinated in a curry mixture) and bredie (slowly cooked stews rich in meat, tomatoes and spices) are integral in our cookery vocabulary.

It all began in 1652, when the Cape of Good Hope was born, a stop in South Africa for ships of the East India Company of Holland on their way east. Immigrants from Europe, convicts from China, slaves from Mozambique and the prisoners from Java soon increased the populace of the seaside village bringing with them their unique cookery skills. A multi-ethnic cuisine emerged, and one can only imagine the aromas emanating from kitchens producing highly spiced dishes from Dutch, Italian, Portuguese and especially oriental recipes handed down for generations. Cape Malay cuisine is a delicious fusion of Asian, European and African food genres. From clove laden denningvleis lamb to naartjie (tangerine) zest infused tameletjie cookies, Cape Malay cooking is seasoned with history, infused with culture and full of fine flavours.

The Malay influence comes through in the curries, chilies and extensive use of spices such as ginger, cinnamon and turmeric. More Malay magic comes through the use of fruit cooked with meat, marrying sweet and savoury flavours, with hints of spice, curry and other seasonings. The food has a nuance of seductive spiciness, true testament to the culinary capabilities of Malay women world wide. I cannot think of a dried apricot without the image of our cook Lizzie, grinning widely, a wooden spoon in her hand, gently stirring a pot of simmering curry and fruit.

Lizzie’s bobotie is legendary and I still have her recipe in my book of kitchen treasures. Bobotie (pronounced ba-boor-tea) is a curried ground beef dish, baked in a rich egg custard. Some recipes call for you to combine the curry powder with the ground beef, whilst others advise you to fry the curry powder with the onions. The method is really unimportant. Once the custard covering the beef begins to bake, it keeps the meat moist and absorbs the fragrance of the curry and spices. What makes bobotie such a popular traditional South African dish is that it is exceptional served hot with geelrys (yellow rice), but just as good served cold with a peppery green salad with a tart vinaigrette dressing.

1 large onion, chopped
25 g butter
500 g Minced beef
2 Garlic cloves, crushed
2 cm Fresh root ginger, peeled and grated
2 tsp Garam masala
½ tsp Turmeric
1 tsp Ground cumin
1 tsp Ground coriander
2 Cloves
3 Allspice berries
1 tsp Dried mixed herbs
50 g Dried apricots, chopped
50 g Sultanas
25 g Flaked almonds
3 tbsp Chutney
4 tbsp Chopped parsley
4 Bay leaves, plus extra to garnish
250ml Whole milk

Preheat the oven to 180C/gas 4. Heat the butter in a saucepan and cook the onions until soft. Set aside. Heat a large frying pan over a high heat and fry the beef, without oil, until golden brown.

Remove from the heat and add the onions together with all the other ingredients except the milk and eggs. Mix well and put into 4 x 300ml ovenproof bowls or a large ovenproof dish. Press the mixture down with the back of a spoon.

Beat the milk and eggs together lightly and pour over the mince mixture. Bake for 20–25 minutes for small boboties (and 30–40 minutes for a large one) or until the topping has set and is golden brown.

Serve your bobotie with blatjang (pronounced blud-young) a delicious, tangy chutney of dried fruit and spices. A fragrant, gently spiced dish of geelrys (yellow rice) is also a traditional accompaniment to this dish of sublime deliciousity.

Apricot Blatjang
250 g dried apricots
1 red onion, quartered
½ tsp dried crushed chillies
2 garlic cloves
50 ml white malt vinegar
1 heaped tbsp brown sugar
A dollop of mustard
A knob of ginger, grated

Put the apricots in a bowl and pour over 600 ml boiling water. Leave for 30 mins to soak and cool. Plop the apricots and their soaking liquid into a food processor with all the remaining ingredients, then blitz for a scant 30 seconds or until roughly chopped. Tip into a saucepan, then cover and simmer for 20-25 minutes until thick and pulpy.

350 g basmati rice
50 g butter
1 heaped tbsp caster sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon or 1⁄2 cinnamon stick
6 cardamom pods , shelled and seeds crushed
just under 1 tsp ground turmeric
5 tbsp raisins

Put all the ingredients in a large pan with 1 tsp salt and 500ml water, then heat until boiling and the butter has melted. Stir, cover and leave to simmer for 6 mins. Take off the heat and leave, still covered, for 5 mins. Fluff up and tip into a warm bowl to serve.

As a true blue Capetonian, it would be very remiss of me if I didn’t suggest one of our fine wines to go with the bobotie! Although the Cape Malays, being devout Muslims, don’t drink alcohol it would be remiss of me not suggest one of our ambrosial wines to accompany the bobotie! One of my favourites is from the Boekenhoutskloof Estate in Franshoek. Their Syrah is an absolute cracker, full of complex, cracked pepper flavours and has a huge silky palate – and in my opinion, perfect with meat dishes of any description!


Thank you so much, Lola, for inviting me to share a little taste of home with this delectable Cape Malay meal. Buon appetito - lekker eet!

Thank you Tessa!

2010 update.
After a long and courageous battle against Pulmonary Fibrosis Tessa passed away on Monday, 27th December surrounded by her family.
She brought warmth, light and colour into our lives and the world is a drabber, sadder and drearier place without her. No words can describe the loss we feel, but she will forever remain a bright, shining star in our memories - warm, bold, brave and strong.

Sep 22, 2009

Another film set, another suitcase

It's been a busy month here at Aglio, Olio & Peperoncino.

I have published several essays and features on various online Travel/Food magazines (check my sidebar for the links) and I have been interviewed, awarded and selected to be part of many great blogrolls (again, see in my sidebar for more AO&P online). I have designed a badge, and I am honored that some blog friends have displayed it on their sites. I have joined foodie hubs and search engines, and my traffic and followers have greatly increased.

I have twittered 'til the wee hours and made wonderful acquaintances therein. I have wisely de-cluttered and placed classified ads for old furniture and baby gear (alas no yard sale tradition here!). I have given books, clothes and toys to charities, and through the Internet, I "bumped into" my first preschool teacher, who is still living in Rome. We met for a picnic with Mr.E and it was a very touching moment to see her after all these years. She had saved this picture of my preschool graduation. I'm the one in the white dress and black shoes, fourth from the left.

Tomorrow I leave for a new film. We shoot an American film in Abruzzo for 8 weeks or so. Should be fun. But it will be hard to part with my son. He has just recently started attending a new school, and new habits and friendships are being formed. He is very shy, incredibly affectionate and tender, and I will miss my morning cuddles and his sweet "quanto sei bella" (how beautiful you are) during playtime. Our intimate mother-son rituals will be carried out by his loyal nanny. 

She'll be reading him Goodnight Moon, cooking his meals and becoming a tennis-playing warrior, or a truck-driving firefighter if the game requires it. I on the other hand will be speaking to my son over the phone. I will be strong and I will leave with a lump in my throat but faking a smile as my son waves from the window. I'll be biting my fingernails at his every silence and sneeze. I will be the breadwinner, devoured by guilt.

My laptop travels with me and I will still post every other day. I will keep freelance writing, emailing, discussing and posting recipes and hosting the weekly Be My Guest event. I will be back home on weekends, and my plans to participate in the vendemmia, olive press and Positano parties are still very much happening. I will treasure returning to the hotel room after work every day to read your blogs and your stories. Mushrooms and truffles will be eaten. Hare and perhaps wild boar too.

I will be punctual at work every day, neat and quiet. I'll not slouch and I'll sit with my knees locked together, prim and proper in my patagonia fleece. I'll wear my woolly hat and mittens gracefully. I will perform my job duties with care, I will be up to the task. I will rub elbows with stars and I will participate in a new creative process. I will be professional, discreet and efficient. I will be all that and more.

But I feel this could be my swan song.

I need a stable job. One that I can rely on. One with human-friendly hours. I have fantasies of a 9-to-5 day. I crave perks and benefits. I need a regular income! It's wonderfully empowering to carry the world on my own shoulders and be free from obligations, but sometimes it gets really difficult to do it all by myself. There's no business like show business, but I'm exhausted.

Freelance writing, blogging and editing my book will be my refreshing part-time job during the upcoming full-time job engagement with the film. I can do it. It'll be hard, but fun, too. I always like a good challenge.

I have to go pack now. Destination: Sulmona, cute little town in Abruzzo known for its traditional production of confetti, sugared almonds––not paper party decorations.

Confetti are traditional Italian sugared almonds with a hard sugar coating. The result is a crunchy white oval-shaped candy that's usually given as a symbolic celebratory gift in sets of odd numbers, usually 5.

Confetti can also be made with a chocolate filling instead of almonds. They are handed out as a small token (in little ornate fabric bags or decorated boxes) to family and friends for special occasions, like weddings, baptisms, christenings, graduations, etc. Wedding confetti are typically white; to celebrate the birth of a newborn baby, confetti are usually gender-colored (pink or baby-blue) and for a graduation they are lucky red. Silver and gold anniversary confetti respectively represent 25 and 50 years of marriage.

On the other hand the English word "confetti" corresponds to the Italian coriandoli. The connection is an interesting language story: long ago, during Carnival people would throw confetti (candy) that held a small coriander seed inside each, as a sign of appreciation for the best costumes at masquerade balls. Later on, small pieces of paper substituted the candy and their Italian name refers to the original herbal ingredient, coriandolo, while the English-speaking world remained faithful to the original candy name calling them confetti. Did I confuse you sufficiently?

A presto!

Sep 18, 2009

The keyhole at Knights of Malta

White and green. The two predominant colors in the Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta. They are the hues of the carved marble and the feathery foliage of cypress, ivy and palm trees.

The walk uphill Via Porta Lavernale, leaving Testaccio's busy Via Marmorata behind, is quite a work-out. The incline is steep, but the surroundings pretty, so flexed calves and burning buttocks almost become a pleasant feeling. You'll find that the Piazza at the end of the passeggiata is empty: a Carabinieri patrol car, engine idling, perhaps a street vendor selling chilled water bottles, candy and microwaved Jurassic pizzas, and that's it. The place is deserted and peaceful.

At the far end of the square, set like a black diamond in the white facade, the huge doorway (always shut) is the mighty entrance to the headquarters of the Sovereign Order of the Knights of Malta. The one dark spot in the otherwise blinding glare of marble in the sun.

If you stop a while here, you'll see the occasional group of tourists approaching the closed doorway and taking a peek. And then they leave. Ten minutes later, a car may drive up–oftentimes a rented limo with driver–an Asian couple alights. They take a peek. And then they leave. No big deal. The Carabinieri sit motionless in their purring vehicle. Nothing strange is going on.

What everyone is peeking at is the 'Hole of Rome,' the famous keyhole through which the dome of Saint Peter can be clearly seen at the other end of a secret courtyard. The trees in the Order's garden romantically frame the perfect image.

Image copyright Gary Arndt

It may be a cliché, but the ritual of the "peek" is always a touching moment, like a sudden row of multiple stone arches, or harp music in a classical composition. There's something oddly sentimental in leaning forward, closing one eye and looking at il Cupolone, the dome–as we call it here–through one of Rome's most prohibited locations, mainly because the show through the keyhole is one hardly forgettable. This is in fact the only possible contact with what resides beyond the heavy closed doorway. The only exception is possessing an uber-authoritative decree signed by the Knights themselves, allowing the fortunate pilgrim through.

Neither the church of Santa Maria del Priorato, Giovanni Battista Piranesi's XVIII century remodeling work of art commissioned by Cardinal Rezzonico, the courtyard, nor the Order's convent are accessible to the public. What Piranesi's genius was able to rebuild, landscape and decorate cannot be seen in person. Only the Piazza and the famous doorway is for everyone to have. A consolation prize.

Sure, it would be great to continue the visit and see the church. But you can't.

One must be content with the emptiness of the ivory Piazza. Appreciating subtraction and absence; and basking in its silence. I like to come up here to peek through a keyhole, squint at the white of a marble facade, and drink up the deep greens of the cascading ivy, the cypress and the palms caressed by the sun.

Image copyright Gary Arndt

Sep 16, 2009

Autunno - harvest season in Italy

Don't you just love autumn? During the third season of the year, when plentiful crops and fruits are gathered and brown leaves fall, the first showers replenish the soil and I am comforted by the thought that I'll be soon feasting on porcini mushrooms, truffles, hearty soups, ruby red wine and cloudy green, freshly pressed olive oil. In the Northern hemisphere the Italian countryside will soon be ablaze with color, and tables laden with gorgeous foods.

autumn harvest
The first item on the autumn agenda is the annual appointment with la vendemmia, the grape harvest. The earliest frost peeks out and the first woolly jumpers appear, still itchy against remnants of tanned skin. Wellington boots afoot and crisp morning air tickling nostrils, the shearing begins. Whites first, then onto burgundy clusters which fall into crates ready for the press. Although the folkloristic image of Italian peasants stomping grapes with their bare feet is charming, the wine-making procedure here is professional, environmentally sane and clean.
Grape harvest in Tuscany
The meal that usually follows the hard day's grape picking work (and subsequent turning them into must) is always a gargantuan pot-luck banquet: chicken liver crostini, pasta e ceci and typical Tuscan ribollita soups, roasted meats, fagioli all'uccelletto, sausage, 700 side dishes and as many homemade desserts. Washed down by the previous year's vintage and lazy nibbling of aged Pecorino, honey and vin santo with cantucci to finish off the repast. Rosy cheeks, protruding bellies and shiny red noses, we all—expert vineyard tenders and untrained out-of-towners—exchange double-sided kisses and say our mutual arrivederci 'til next year's harvest.
Grape harvest in Tuscany
Next on the fall calendar is the Frantoio, the oil pressing days. The extraction of oil is a fascinating procedure. My friends in Tuscany whom I always spend the month of August with, own and manage an oil press, serving their small rural community. Olive growers from all over the area migrate to my friends’ estate in late fall with their precious load of olives and go back home with demijohns filled with ambrosia after exhaustive all-night pressing marathons. The mill works incessantly day and night for six intense weeks. The family takes turns at working the machinery, cleaning the hardware, keeping track of production, sales, bureaucratic paperwork, public relations and entertaining guests.

The oil press here is of the traditional kind, where oil is obtained by grinding the olives. Green olives produce bitter oil, and overripe olives give a bigger yield, but produce rancid oil, so huge care is taken to make sure the olives are picked when perfectly ripened. First the olives are ground into paste using huge millstones. The olive paste generally stays under the stones for 30–40 minutes. After grinding, the olive paste is spread on large 2ft woven fiber disks, which are stacked on top of each other, then placed into the press. Pressure is then applied onto the disks to separate the oil from the paste. The oil collected during this part of the process is the virgin oil. Further pressing of the paste produces a lower grade of oil.
Olive harvest in TuscanyImage courtesy of Florablog

The first drops of cold-pressed oil to spout out of the press on opening night are welcomed with a round of applause and a festive food and wine extravaganza. Considering jobs and other daytime duties on the farm, oil pressing is usually a sensual evening to late-night activity. Upon retiring to bed, drained of all energy and satiated by the heavenly fumes and spectacular food, I close my eyes cradled by the rumble of the machinery working away in the mill several floors beneath my bedroom. The entire villa vibrates and is a living part of the magical operation. I always return home laden with gallons (actually oil is measured in weight units, so kilos) of oil that I stock up for the entire year and also distribute as Christmas gifts.

Olive harvest in Tuscany

The last food-fest rendezvous before winter is the joyous celebratory event held for friends and aficionados at the official closing of the summer season at Positano's glorious Buca di Bacco Hotel and Restaurant. My family has sojourned at La Buca ever since I can remember. I must have been my son's age when my grandparents first took me there with my mother. Over the years our unfailing loyalty to the place and the solid friendships formed with the owners and staff have made our stays at Buca di Bacco more of a family gathering than a vacation. All our beach paraphernalia, towels, bathing suits and my son's shovels and toys are stowed in the hotel's storage room, ready for next year's summer vacation in one of the many domed rooms overlooking the crystal Mediterranean waters.

Buca di Bacco Positano
The yearly end of autumn seasonal closure for winter event has since the last ten years been a steadfast yearly appointment with the gorgeous coastal location and the wonders of the Buca di Bacco's fantastical kitchen. This year, our California trip substituted the usual summer Positano vacation, so this year's closing Festa di Fine Stagione is an absolute must. I am craving the smell of cascading wisteria and trumpet-shaped datura flowers, the glimmering sunlight on the wind-ruffled sea surface at noon, and the amazing taste of Buca di Bacco's cuisine.

The summer I could not afford to pay for my room, I worked in the kitchen as commis chef. It was a wonderful experience and the cooking knowledge and expert tricks I learned that summer are equal only to the weight I gained. I just had to taste everything we made!
Buca di Bacco Positano
Like every year, my family and I will not be trick-or-treating or carving jack-o-lanterns. On October 31st this year we'll be here, like every Halloween, feasting on delightful seafood, marvelous wines and laughing among friends.
Positano in off-season is the best

Sep 14, 2009

Zuppa di Farro recipe

It's raining today, and we are all thankful. The air smells green and sexy. Heady notes of wet grass, rich earth and moss emerge from the ground. Shoulders suddenly drop, smiles return to flushed faces, and blankets are taken out of camphor-lined brown paper bundles from the back of the closet.

Tonight I will take care of the cambio di stagione, the season's clothes change from summer linen, cotton and pastels to an autumnal palette, heavier textures, scarves and rain gear. Mr E has begun preschool, and the novelty has brought a wave of excitement to us all.

Tomorrow morning, taking advantage of the last days off before the beginning of a new job, I will make a quick trip to the market where my mushroom guy will surely be selling his foraged goods from nearby forests and damp woodland undergrowth. I will stock up on pumpkin, cabbage, beautiful golden grapes, the last figs, lovely tangerines and buy fragrant bread and juicy steaks for dinner.

And if the showers and chilly wind keep up, I will be making some soup too.

Zuppa di Farro

Farro is a type of wheat grown in cold, inhospitable mountain areas. The small oblong kernel is used for soups, either shelled or unshelled (which is commonly called spelt) or for salad. Many regional varieties of zuppa di farro exist, this is my family’s recipe. A healthy and restorative treat to be eaten slowly and in silence while the autunno wind plays with fallen leaves outside the window.

200 g (1 cup) shelled farro
400 g (2 cups) boiled borlotti beans
1 white onion, minced
1 garlic clove, minced
1 celery rib, trimmed and left whole
1 carrot, peeled and left whole
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Rinse the farro several times in fresh water and set aside.

Boil the dried beans with the celery, onion, carrot and garlic for an hour, there is no need for a pre-soak. Spoon out 2 tablespoons of beans and set them aside for later.

Whir the rest of the bean soup with its cooking water in the blender until smooth and creamy. Transfer to a stewpot and add the washed farro, and simmer gently for 45 minutes, stirring often and being extra careful that it doesn't stick.

Add the 2 saved tablespoons of beans to the pot, and season to taste. Serve drizzled with raw olive oil in large steaming bowls.

Wine? Bardolino!

Image courtesy of aniceecannella

Sep 12, 2009

Cornetto Nights

When asking around for a good "cornetto" place to finish off a night in Rome, it always feels like inquiring about a Masonic lodge. Folks check you out, trying to figure out if it's OK to disclose the secret. Then furtively looking around and whispering so as not to be overheard, miraculously an address slips out of tight lips, but only if you have been deemed worthy.

Everyone has a favorite cornetto dealer, almost always located in remote whereabouts, and typically underground. Directions to these secret society hang-outs usually begin with: "Look, it's a little bit complicated". This produces the stereotype middle-of-the-night knocking on unidentifiable shut gates in seedy industrial areas of the city, climbing in mysterious elevators, challenging three headed dragons and completing wild Hercules-style tasks to be granted the privilege of sinking one's teeth in a warm, fragrant just baked cornetto - a croissant.

It is therefore with the respect of an initiate introduced to a new religion that one must approach the subject. Humbly, head bowed, eyes averted. Listening carefully to the complex directions, treasuring them, keeping them safely in one's custody and dispensing them with extreme caution.

The address to a good cornettaro—Roman slang for the typical night-shift baker that sells croissants (usually an artisanal bakery/patisserie workshop) is worth gold. The perils cornetto seekers are faced with in the wee hours of the night are always lurking. One of them is seeing your favorite cornetto pusher shutting down. Er Montacarichi in via Pietralata 159A for example, a dimly lit warehouse whose service elevator pulls patrons up into the bowels of a steaming furnace where the goods are baked, and whose street level metal shutter has been mysteriously pulled down for years now. It would be trouble if the joint were no longer in business. Throngs of aficionados and cornetto junkies willing to to cross a deserted garage and climb in the musty floor lift would be at a loss without their nightly dose.

Those who believe such things can only happen in the outskirts of town are in for a surprise. Rome is dotted with cornettari. A city ordinance scared millions of nighttime consumers earlier this year when voices started circulating that selling food in bakeries and workshops after hours was illegal.

«Il cornetto è salvo» —the croissant is saved. Rome's mayor Alemanno's thundering sentence ended the controversy lifted by news of a presumed municipal law involving historic Roman cornettari, which prohibited the sale of their tasty goods after 1:00 am. A group gathered 8000 signatures on facebook for a picket line in Campidoglio, Rome's city hall; others feared a curfew blaming Alemanno's right wing affiliations to be returning Rome to its 20-year Fascist epoch, others simply feared the Eternal City would lose its status of cornetto capital that doesn't sleep. Whatever the political agenda, croissant bakers WILL continue to stay open and sell sweetness all night. And that's all that counts.
Image courtesy of 06blog

Last night, as my son snored in dreamy slumber, I payed the nanny's silence extra cash and tiptoed out of the house. I snuck out dressed in black, feverishly anticipating the adventure. Fortunately Laboratorio Lambiase has survived the bad economy and surge in cheap bars that serve stale cornetti made with industrially manufactured frozen dough.

I arrived at 1.15 am and the place was bopping with activity. Bystanders with glazed eyes and chocolate-smeared faces stood loitering the sidewalk, the moans of pleasure grew louder as I neared the small steps of the entrance that lead the believer down to a worldly universe of sweet pleasures. An exclusive circle, open to a selected handful of lucky few. Heroic knights who do not give in to the temptation offered by the luring neon lights of the "regular" cafes along the way, populated by lonely slot machine addicts and the occasional stranded drunk, no. This is a place for lionhearts and seekers of perfection.

The house specialty at Lambiase is a danish roll baked express and served hot. It is then filled with custard, fresh whipped cream and drizzled with chocolate sauce. This awesome calorie bomb goes by the ambiguous (and cheeky) name of "Sorchetta Doppio Schizzo," which I cannot translate because I agreed to posting no adult content on this site. Let's just say the analogy is with kittens and female reproductive organs. The expression doppio schizzo is the description of the pastry's topping, and means "double squirt." The long line of triple-parked cars that obstruct Via Cernaia from midnight to dawn is the undeniable sign of Lambiase's (and their divine sorchetta specialty's) ongoing success. I saw people leaving the shop with bagfuls, and surely not for next morning's breakfast. Others were spilling in giggling and high with the perfumy air that escaped the ventilation shafts in the street. I reached the counter, asked for a sorchetta and ended up eating two. Plus took one home for Mr E.

Laboratorio Lambiase also specializes in regular croissants, krapfen (a delicious fried pastry filled with custard), donuts, puff pastry elephant ears locally called ventagli (elephant ears), bite-size spicy pizzas and rustici, which are small, assorted savory canapés.

Pasticceria Laboratorio Lambiase
Via Cernaia 47A Tel. +39 06 4941363
(please don't say I told you)

More worthy cornettari, divided by area:

Trastevere: Unnamed bakery/pastry shop on Vicolo del Cinque
Testaccio: No name pastry workshop on Via Alessandro Volta
Marconi/EUR: Il Cornettone in Via Oderisi da Gubbio; No name bakery workshop in Via Pietro Blaserna, 38
Monteverde: Unnamed pastry/bakery workshop in Via di Monteverde
Prati: Quelli della Notte on Via Leone IV; Dolce Maniera on Via Barletta, 29; Unnamed bakery workshop on Viale Angelico
Trionfale: No name bakery/pastry shop on Via Angelo Emo
Boccea: No name bakery/pastry shop on Via di Forte Bravetta
Centocelle: No name bakery/pastry shop on Via dei Platani
Parioli: Bambu's Bar on Viale Parioli; Marcucci in Piazzale Ponte Milvio
Nomentano: Pasticceria Romoli on Viale Eritrea, 140-142
L'Angolo Russo in Piazza Sempione
San Giovanni: No name bakery/pastry workshop on Via Albalonga, near Piazza Re di Roma
Cinecittà: Pasticceria Tichetti on Via Appio Claudio

Sep 10, 2009

Be my guest - Tangy Sweet Salmon recipe

For this week's installment of Be my guest I'll be introducing my dear friend Lori E, author of the blog Family Trees May Contain Nuts as chef of the day.

Lori E is a brilliant genealogy researcher, computer teacher, tole painter, gardener, Santa collector, food & wine enthusiast and witty blogger. Lori and I began posting around the same time, it's been fun to follow each other's creative baby steps in blogging.

She will be sharing a surprise recipe today. I'm kind of excited because I don't know what she'll be making. All I know is that it already smells wonderful...

Here you go Lori—the kitchen is yours.

Tangy Sweet Salmon

I am so pleased to share a meal with my friend Lola and all of her friends too. I am a Canadian and I live on the West Coast of the country in Beautiful British Columbia.

Having the ocean so near you can be sure that one of the main ingredients in many restaurant and home cooked meals is seafood. British Columbia is known for its delicious bounty from the sea and salmon in particular.

We have a wonderful fish market nearby that has their own boats. This assures us of the freshest seafood possible. Bruce’s Market is the place to go. I have written about them before and always buy my seafood there.

This recipe really isn't much of a recipe at all. It is so simple and so good you will have people who normally don’t care for salmon asking for seconds.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit, about 200° Celsius. Nice and hot for fish.

Let's start with a lovely filleted piece of salmon. I prefer Sockeye salmon for its bright color and superior taste.
Place it on a piece of foil. This will be messy in the end so you will be happy you did.

Use a good quality mayonnaise and spread it over the whole length of the salmon, about 1/8 of an inch thick.

Sprinkle this with some pepper.

On top of this you will pack some brown sugar again about 1/8 to ¼ inch thick. Press it into the mayonnaise layer firmly. Now you will be happy you placed this on the foil.

Lift it with the foil and place it on a baking sheet. Pop this into your hot oven cooking 10 minutes per inch or until fish flakes easily in the thickest part.

The fish will be topped with a delicious sauce both tangy and sweet that will compliment the lovely salmon flavour.

I would offer a crisp, cold Pinot Grigio with this. I chose a wine from a British Columbia winery, Ganton & Larsen Prospect Winery in the Okanagan Valley. Their Pinot Grigio is called Ogopogo's Lair in reference to the mysterious Ogopogo sea creature said to live in the lake and the cave in which he resides when not prowling the waters.

Anyone up for a little swim before dinner?

Grazie, Lori E!

Sep 6, 2009

Pollo ai Peperoni - chicken and peppers recipe

I went to visit Massimo, my pollarolo on Saturday at the farmer's market. A pollarolo is a poultry vendor, but Massimo sells many kinds of meat: chicken, turkey, hare, rabbit, spring lamb, game birds, a few pork cuts, and eggs. All his goods are free range and humanely butchered. I trust his methods and his meats, because I've seen the farm where he is partner and where his animals are reared, and I have witnessed a weekly slaying there once.

Mr. E, my 3 year-old son, has grown eating Massimo's birds. I was always confident that the white meats I fed him since I began weaning him onto solids never contained a single milligram of hormones or antibiotics. I myself have been raised on Massimo Il Pollarolo's goods. My mother has been a regular customer at his little market stall covered in A.S.Roma soccer posters ever since I can remember.

I used to go with her food shopping at the market on Saturdays too, and I guess that's where the seeds of my love for food, fresh garden ingredients and colorful marketplaces were planted. I recall watching Massimo's carving knives gliding though chicken breasts and opening them like booklets; his 4-lb mallet smashing down on thick pork ribs and his bloody hands carefully wrapping complimentary sprigs of rosemary along with the meat cuts in waxed paper for us to take home. Not even on the hottest days did I ever see flies buzzing around Massimo's spotless countertop. His parcels always came handed over with a smile and a recipe tip. "Don't drown it in white wine!" he would call after us as we strolled onto the next vendor to buy the eggplant and the tomatoes.

So Staurday I showed up at Massimo's stall as it was getting close to noon. I peered at the display case while Mr. E hypnotically stared at the burly giant behind the counter juggling his chopping implements. When the last customer in line before me left, I met Massimo's gaze and smiled in the direction of the tray of chicken halves. Bright yellow skin, buttery pink flesh, crimson veins and glowing china-white cartilage. Not the anemic, squallid-looking birds packed in plastic coffins that crowd the poultry section of your supermarket, no. These were actual chickens. They had been pecking away at grass only 2 days ago, Massimo assured me (these aren't fed corn or protein meals).

"How much do you want, and what are you making?" Massimo posed his usual question as he sharpened his tools. I pondered. I didn't have anything in mind at the moment, I was hoping on my usual spur of the moment stoveside inspiration. So I just said what my mom used to answer: "Dimmi tu." - You tell me.

Pollo ai Peperoni! Of course, chicken and bell peppers, what else? A typical Roman cucina casalinga (homestyle cookery) recipe made with simple ingredients, prepared with very little fat and an resulting in an incrrrredibly delicious meat+vegetable complete meal.

So that's what I made for lunch today, pollo ai peperoni. Here is the original Roman recipe handed down to my mother 25 years ago, by Massimo himself.

One 1.5 kg (3.3 lbs) free-range chicken, washed and cut in 8 pieces (breasts, thighs, wings and drumsticks)
5 bell peppers (2 red, 2 yellow and 1 green), trimmed and cut in 1-inch squares
1 cluster of small Pachino-like tomatoes (6-7 egg-sized heirloom or cherry tomatoes), halved
1 small white onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled and halved
1 bay leaf
2 fistfuls of unbleached flour
1 glass of dry, white wine
1 ladleful of meat stock
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Dredge the bird pieces lightly in flour seasoned with some salt and pepper.

Sear them with 4 tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet for about 15 minutes, turning to brown evenly.

In another larger pan heat 3 more tablespoons of olive oil, the garlic and the bay leaf. As the garlic begins to tan, stir in the onion. Add the bell peppers and simmer gently for 15 minutes with the wine. Then stir in the halved tomatoes and check seasoning. Some (including myself) like to add a handful of Kalamata-type olives - locally called Gaeta - at this point. But the traditional Roman recipe is olive-less.

Fold in the browned chicken and simmer for 10 more minutes, or until the meat is tender and the sauce is reduced (you can add some broth or hot water if it looks too dry).

Garnish with some fresh basil or a few leaves of fresh marjoram, and enjoy at room temp.

As with many Roman recipes, this dish is best eaten warmed the next day.

The flavorful chicken juices playfully enhance the sweet tomato and savory bell pepper sauce, so keep some crusty bread handy for sloppy scarpetta.

Grazie, Massimo.

Sep 4, 2009

Piadina and Tigelle

Piadina - Romagna

Piadina, or piada is a 10-inch round, unleavened wheat bread typical of the Romagna end of Emilia-Romagna. All along the coastal towns of the Adriatic, small kiosks dot the waterfront. These piadinerie bake and serve piada express and fill it with the selection of your choice at every hour of the day, 24/7. After crazy clubbing and beachfront dancing, nothing beats hot dribbly piadina eaten standing up, while watching the sunrise.

When piadina was a poor man's meal, it was flattened with a rolling pin, placed on a low-rimmed terracotta plate (whose shape is rather primitive) and cooked on burning hardwood coals. Modern day Piadina is still affordable and filling, but baked on a hot metal griddle or heat resistant stoneware. A small miracle happens when water, flour and a drop of lard become piadina.

Piadina lovers know that it's virtually impossible and perhaps even wrong to establish a definitive recipe. There are too many local variations from family to family to determine the exact formula. It may have many different ways of making, but there are some set limits. The thickness, for instance: it cannot be flatter than the piadina made in Riccione or thicker than the one made in Forlì. Whatever the case or town, I have never had piada thicker than 2-4 millimeters (1/8"). More importantly, you should not skimp on the filling and the actual piada must be well cooked. 

One more item of common piadina knowledge? It must be eaten no more than three minutes after cooking or else it will lose its unequalled fragrance, and assume the texture of shoe leather.

Do you want to try making some piadina? Assemble 2.2 lbs unsifted flour (yes, unsifted); 1/2 teaspoon baking soda, 1/2 cup of lard and a pinch of salt (if the word 'lard' wrongfully freaks you out, go with half a glass of extra virgin olive oil, but the result will not be as the original).

Add some water to obtain a rather firm dough. Divide the dough into individual balls the size of an apricot, flatten each with a rolling pin into a 10" disc and cook on a large skillet with no shortening. Turn until spotty on both sides, poking the bubbles that will from as the heat cooks the dough through with the tines of a fork. Done. 

Now stuff it quick, before it gets cold.

Piadina's large circular disk shape, speckled brown by the heat, is crumbly, yet tender with a very delicate flavor. It is usually folded over and stuffed with mouthwatering barbecued sausage and sautéed onions, or good local assorted cured meats, but the classic filling is silken slices of prosciutto di Parma, peppery arugula and messy dollops of squacquerone (a soft white and wobbly cheese). When not in season, the arugula is substituted with garlic sautéed greens (locally called erbette). There are lots of other interesting fillings according to which part of Romagna you are visiting, the one variable that remains the same is a large glass of Sangiovese di Romagna.

Tigelle - Emilia

Tigelle, otherwise known as crescentine, are the typical muffin-type flat bread native to the Modena Apennine area of Emilia. Tigelle are the region's smaller counterpart to Romagna's piadina. Prepared with the same basic water, yeast, lard and flour dough, the 3" flat, round disks were once baked on terracotta molds sometimes lined with chestnut leaves, in a wood-burning oven. Nowadays they are made with a tigelliera, a waffle-type iron that is used over the stove. I own a flower-shaped cast iron tigelliera that roasts 7 buns simultaneously.

Baked tigelle are sliced open and slathered on both insides with a wicked pesto called cunza di Modena, a delicious vampire repellent smear made with crushed garlic, rosemary and rendered pork lard, then dusted with Parmigiano and assembled like a regular sandwich.

A recent fad has seen tigelle daubed with marmalades and chocolate spreads, a highly frowned upon practice among fundamentalists.

If you're traveling anywhere between Modena and Bologna, chasing a fire engine-red Ferrari along country roads and you suddenly feel the urge to slow down and stop for a bite to eat, any trattoria along the way will welcome you with a steaming basket of complimentary tigelle. Be sure to wash down this celestial antipasto with some sparkling crimson Lambrusco.

I guarantee you'll get a clear glimpse of why darling Emilia-Romagna is commonly associated with the sensuality of its women and a profound gourmand philosophy.

Remind me to tell you about borlengo next time...
Images courtesy of dettoefatto

Sep 2, 2009

Be my guest - Green tomato chutney recipe

Today I'm handing my virtual toque hat to Delwyn. She will be doing the cooking here today, and I will learn something new. She is a very talented blogger and we share the same culinary passions based on fresh, healthy ingredients. I eagerly follow all her fabulous nature walks and cooking posts on her beautiful blog A Hazy Moon.

Some time ago Delwyn and I exchanged comments and views regarding my Pommarola post, and she mentioned a family legacy recipe. She was kind enough to accept my invitation to be a guest blogger here today, to illustrate that very recipe for us to share. This entry will also serve as a springboard for a new column which I have called "Be my guest" for which I will invite friends and fellow bloggers to come tell us a recipe of theirs, a pièce de resistance, a cookery family tradition, their signature dish.
I for one, am not a trained professional nor a chef. My qualifications are purely alimentary. In my community of bloggers, we are all certified Eaters with a passion for food, however. In my "You're the cook today" weekly column, each of you will have a chance to contribute your favorite recipes and widen your circle of friends as the official Aglio, Olio & Peperoncino chef of the day.

So come in, Delwyn. Don't be shy. Here's the stove and a clean apron. The pantry is well-stocked and the refrigerator humming over there is filled with anything you might need. Feel free to peruse the cabinets. There's plenty of herbs on the windowsill, and some wine resting sideways in the cellar. I can't wait to see you in action, so I'll just step aside now and watch you make your delicious...

Green Tomato Chutney from New Zealand

A while back joyful Lola was telling us of making sugo while holidaying with her family.
I mentioned that her story brought back the smells and the images of hot nights late in summer when my parents would chop tomatoes and onions at tables out on the back lawn and cook up enough tomato sauce and green tomato chutney to last through the year

Lola inquired about the Green Tomato Chutney and as I was heading off to New Zealand for a few days, I told her that I would dig out my mother's recipe.

The recipe book that holds my mother's favourite recipes has been well used over the years and I was surprised to see that it begins in my young school girl handwriting.

So a week ago I ordered sufficient green tomatoes from the Red Tomato man at the Farmers' markets and last night I began by washing and dicing the green tomatoes and the equivalent amount of onions, sprinkling them with salt and leaving them to sit overnight.

After which I drained them and went to find my spices, the vinegar and sugar.

As my supermarket did not have Pickling spices per se I made a quick call across the Tasman and was given my Mother's sage advice. Do not over do it... So I mixed some peppercorns, mustard seed, ginger, allspice and coriander seeds. Just enough to allow flavour room for the tastes of the curry powder, turmeric and mustard powder that will be added later with cornflour.

Next I boiled the mix of green tomatoes, onions, malt vinegar, sugar and pickling spices for an hour, during which time I sterilized the jars in which I chose to store the chutney.

After the hour of bubbling I thickened the chutney with the power packed brew
of curry, turmeric, cornflour and mustard, spooned it into the waiting jars...

...and made a cracker with Tasty New Zealand Mainland cheese as a sample...

or two.

Green Tomato Chutney is a great condiment for cold meats and adds a tasty pickled lift to cheese crackers.

Quantity recap:
4 lb tomatoes
4 lb onions
salt to sprinkle over
750 ml (1 3/4 pints) malt vinegar
1 oz pickling spice (tied in muslin cloth)
2 lb sugar
Boil one hour
Thicken with the following spices mixed in a little cold vinegar
1 Tb mustard powder
1 Tb curry powder
1 Tb turmeric
1 1/2 to 2 Tb cornflour

Store in sterilized jars. Refrigerate once opened

Thank you Delwyn, that was a terrific recipe. Stay tuned for more Be My Guest appearances!