Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Sweet & Sour Power!

Polpettini in Agrodolce con Carote, Patate & Pastinaca
Sweet & Sour Meatballs with Carrots, Potatoes Parsnip

Sweet and sour- oh yes, I know that! That's a Chinese dish, right? Deep-fried pork in batter and a pineapple sauce? Well- not if you're Sicilian it isn't!

We have lots of sweet and sour countries in Italy and especially in Sicily- and I have always loved the great vinegar and oregano tang that is so typical! This dish is similar to the kinds of dishes that my mom prepares, where the potatoes and vegetables cook alongside the meat and soak up all of the juices... sooo delicious!

This is a simple dish to make- it doesn't require super- precise weighing and measuring, you can make as much or as little as you want and as long as you use the same simple method, you will be just fine... It's all about keeping all of the flavors trapped in one pot- it's as simple as that! Now- let's talk about those flavors...

There are a couple of ingredients missing in this picture- but as you can see- it was already pretty full! So take heed- this is what you will need to have to make around 15 small meatballs. Ground meat- preferably a blend of pork and beef- 200g in this case. For this amount of meat you will need to add 1 cupful of bread crumbs, 1 egg, 1/2 of an onion, 1/2 teaspoon of fennel seed, about 1 tablespoon of grated Parmesan and a good pinch of finely chopped parsley. Then you will need the carrots for a bit of sweetness, the potatoes as your main side dish and a little parsnip... well... just because I happened to have one- haha! Purely optional!

Otherwise- the main flavors come from dried oregano, salt, pepper, red wine vinegar and a little honey- and of course from those tasty meat balls themselves!

The combination of sweet, savory and tangy alongside the plain potatoes and sweet carrots and onion is wonderful and indeed comforting- perfect for these Winter nights and especially so as it is so easy to prepare!

Start off by peeling and boiling the vegetables before you start making the meatballs- by the time you have made them, the vegetables will already have cooked for around 10 minutes and will be half way there!

Which means that I am only giving you 10 minutes to make those meatballs! Simply mix together the ingredients for the meatballs thoroughly and roll them nicely and firmly together into shape. I kept mine small, little more than the size of a walnut, as they are then less likely to break as they cook- and of course because they require a shorter cooking time.

I used my tajine because it is a great way to cook and steam food- but of course a regular saucepan will work just fine. begin by frying the meatballs in just a small amount of olive oil and once they have begun to brown, add the other half of the onion, cut into slices.

Once the onion becomes translucent, drain off the vegetables and add them into the pot with a good sprinkle of oregano- you can use a tablespoon for this amount of ingredients.

Stir carefully and once the meatballs are brown from all sides, add about 1/2 a glass of red wine vinegar to deglaze the base, then cover and allow to simmer for 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

After 15 minutes, remove the lid and continue cooking for 5 minutes or so, then turn off the heat and drizzle with 1 tablespoon of honey- just enough to balance the flavor of the vinegar and oregano. 

And as soon as you have stirred things through... you are ready to serve!

Lovely- with the onion sweet and caramelized and everything enriched with a honey and vinegar flavor- so simple and yet so good!

Yep- old-school home cooking! Un-fussy, satisfying, sensible... and delicious!

Monday, 14 December 2015

See the Light!

Parmigiana di Melanzane Leggera
"Light" Eggplant Parmesan

Eggplant Parmesan- so delicious! But doe we really have to do all of that frying, you ask? Well of course not, I reply! Whatever makes you think that? 

If that eggplant is going to be baked in the oven anyway, why not make use of the oven whilst you prepare your simple tomato sauce and pre-bake your eggplant rather that frying it? Duuuh! It's hardly rocket science and it works! And how!

Eggplant, parmesan cheese, basil, oregano and tomato... some of the most typical and well-loved ingredients in Italian cuisine. You may have to be patient with the cooking time, at around 1 1/2 hours in all- but it is easy to prepare and you will be delighted with the result!

This is what I needed to prepare my simple version of this classic dish and to prepare 4 nice servings. 1 large, round, Sicilian eggplant or 2 larger regular eggplants. 15-16 cherry tomatoes, 2 tablespoons of tomato purée, 1 onion, garlic (optional), dried oregano, plenty of fresh basil, salt, pepper, olive oil and of course- Parmesan cheese!

This is a very basic version of the classic dish, but much lower fat without the frying and yet equally delicious. It is not as if I am "on a mission"- really it isn't... or maybe I am? I just like to stop and think about what I am doing and to maybe think of a new way of doing it. I think it is good to question things and try my own ideas out. And I do love getting good results whilst doing things my own way- especially when they are edible and delicious good results!

Step one is to turn on the oven and in particular the broiler. Step two is to slice the eggplant up thinly and to salt it lightly. And step 3 is to bake those slices in the oven for around 4-5 minutes from either side, until they soften up and are basically half-done. 

But whilst you work your way through baking the eggplant, you can prepare your simple sauce!

For the sauce, simply fry your chopped onion until it becomes translucent and then add the diced cherry tomatoes, 4-5 torn-up leaves of basil, salt and pepper in a little olive oil. Feel free to add garlic or chili pepper if your prefer- this time, I kept it more plain.

Once the tomatoes began to soften, I added a couple of tablespoons of tomato purée and then fried and stirred everything together for a good 5 minutes, until the purée became completely blended-in and the tomatoes softened right down.

I then added water, little by little and stirred it in until the purée and the tomatoes pieces became a light sauce and then reduced the heat to a simmer and let the sauce bubble away and reduce down for the next 10 minutes or so.

In the meantime, I had baked my eggplant slices and they had cooled off nicely, so I could easily handle them to start assembling my "Parmigiana".

I first spooned out a couple of ladles of sauce onto my baking dish and then laid out the first layer of eggplant slices. I spooned sauce over them, added a few leaves of basil, plenty of black pepper, a good sprinkle of oregano and coarsely grated Parmesan- I prefer a course texture to fine grains for the inner layers of the parmigiana as they help everything to stick together more nicely.

By the time I had used up all of my eggplant slices and covered them with sauce, there was quite a bit that had seeped out into my baking dish- which was just fine, as this would be absorbed by the eggplant during baking and would of course reduce-down further.

I finished it with a generous sprinkle of oregano, pepper, cheese and a few more basil leaves, which I pressed down to that they would be moistened by the sauce and then popped my baking dish into the oven at 200°C for around 45 minutes.

And my patience was rewarded by this beautiful sight, the wonderful aroma... and a simple, traditional Italian dish that was fit for a king! Or for me at least! But I am sure it will be good enough for all of you good people too! Haha!

Allow it to cool slightly, then cut into portions and serve... and fall in love... and enjoy!

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Just a Flash in the Pan!

Crespella Croccante alla Polenta con Radicchio Tardivo, Salami al Barolo, Zenzero, Salvia & Timo 
Crispy Polenta Pancake with Radicchio Tardivo, Barolo Salami, Ginger, Sage & Thyme

Is it a pancake? Is it a flatbread? Hmmm- that's pretty hard to answer! Is it easy to make and totally delicious? Well- that's a little easier! The answer is yes!

The truth I suppose, lies somewhere in-between. This is a savory pancake, enriched with polenta, to give it a firm, wholesome texture - then topped with some wonderful, unusual, delicious stuff to brighten up even the dreariest of Winters! And, oh- those colors!

This took a little extra "prep work", in as much as that I soaked the polenta for a couple of hours before making my little pancake, but otherwise- this was whipped together in les than half an hour!

As usual, this was improvised from what just happened to be in my fridge today... so it's a lucky coincidence that I should have had such delicious treats there- haha!

So- here they are, all lined up- my simple little ingredients!

1 small radicchio- I was lucky enough to find this lovely "Tardivo" variety yesterday, with its beautiful thin leaves- but you can use regular radicchio of course and cut it into strips. Then- salami. Again, any salami will do, because basically you just want the saltiness and the meatiness and bite- but I was fortunate enough to have bought this exquisite example that was infused with Barolo wine- oh, yum! Otherwise- 2 cupfuls of polenta, 2 eggs, fresh sage and thyme, a little ginger, salt, pepper, nutmeg and olive oil.

This is great hot or cold- and you can take my word for it, because it still tasted awesome, even after I had taken my photos and sorted them for you good people!

I have to share a little close-up of this beautiful, Barolo salami with you- because i can't share it for real. I don't know if doing so should make me feel better or worse! Hehe! But no- I regret nothing!

As I already mentioned, I soaked 2 cups of polenta in 2 cups of water for about 2 hours- this gave it a chance to absorb the moisture and to swell up a little. I could have boiled the polenta for a while and let it sit and cool too... but this was an experiment and it worked fine. maybe I will try the other option next time.

I added my 2 eggs to the polenta, seasoned generously with salt, pepper and nutmeg and stirred it together to form the batter for my pancake. Simple.

I finely sliced 3 good sized sage leaves, cut the radicchio from the stalk and separated the leaves, thinly cut around 15-16 slices from the salami and grated the ginger. And then I was able to begin.

I poured the batter into my hot frying pan, which I lightly coated with olive oil first, then spread out all of the other ingredients before it began to set. I started with the radicchio, then the salami and then scattered the sage and ginger on top. I added plenty of freshly ground pepper and a light sprinkle of salt to the radicchio only, then let it sit and cook and set, until the outer edges changed color slightly and I knew that the base was set.

I then popped it into the oven to finish baking for 10 minutes or so at 200°C. In that time, the radicchio will wilt down a little and the ginger will begin to crisp-up and get toasty- and those are great flavors that they add into the mix!

Once the salami had crisped up, the surface had begun to go brown and the radicchio had wilted down nicely- it was ready to serve! I added a generous sprinkle of fresh thyme to "lift" the flavors with a fresh note and added some fresh sage leaves for a final, finishing touch!

And all I had to do then was to cut it up, serve it- and hold on to my taste buds!

These are wonderful, wholesome Winter flavors that blend together wonderfully! And a whole new idea to add to my ever-growing repertoire! I look forward to making the next one... I wonder what I shall next time? wink emoticon

Stars in Your Pies

Crostata "Stella di Natale" 2015
"Christmas Star" Tarte- 2015 
(with Persimmon, Pistachio, Jam & Spice)

Fruit, pastry, jam, spice and pistachio. Questions? No, I didn't think so! Or should I say, I should hope not! This is super-simple to make, looks as pretty as can be and will brighten up any Christmas afternoon!

This little beauty will take up 1 hour of your time in all- at the very most. It will cost you next-to-nothing to make, it will make people (including yourselves) very happy and it will do it with only that touch of jam and not with loads of sugar... so do you want to see how to make it?

Good! Read on!

If you have all of those ingredients... and a roll of puff-pastry... and a frying pan, you can make this tart! That's right- you read that correctly- a frying pan!

Of course, you can make this without a pan, but I guarantee it will not work as well and you will wish you had listened to me! On the other hand... if you are familiar with my craziness in the kitchen, you will already be accustomed to my method... but if not... again... carry on reading!

It was a small pie, ok, at just 6" in diameter, and so it really didn't take much to make it- and yet it made for 4 good-sized slices, or 6 more dainty ones- and this is all I needed to make it. 

1 roll of puff pastry, 1 large persimmon, 1 tablespoon of jam- raspberry in this case, but any will do, 1 tablespoon approx. of ground pistachio, 3 cardamom pods, 1/2 teaspoon of coriander seeds, 1 segment of a star anise and 1 teaspoon of cinnamon.

Not too sweet, tasting wonderfully seasonal with all of that wonderful spice and with that lovely, flaky, puff-pastry- who could possibly resist this gorgeous little creation? And more's to the point... why?!?!

Start off by grinding the spices together, either using a mortar and pestle, like I did, or a new-fangled gadget- like most of you probably have- hehe! I simply added cinnamon powder to mine rather than grinding it- no need to make life unnecessarily difficult, eh?

Peel the persimmon, halve it, remove the core, cut it into quarters and then cut those quarters into slices. Pop these into a bowl, add your spices and a tablespoon of jam, stir together well- and voila! That is your pie filling- no need for any more sugar, fuss... or anything! You're done!

Now- turn on the oven to get it nice and hot... and carry on having fun preparing your little star!

Cut out 2 circles of pastry using a very sharp knife- this is important, because only a nice, sharp cut will ensure that the pastry puffs-up nicely. If your knife is blunt, you will squash the pastry together and seal all of those layers and the air will not be able to escape as it bakes later. 

Once you have your 2 circles ready, make 4 cuts into one of them, as you can see in the photo, leaving about 1 1/2" of clearance towards the outer edge. I simply used a saucer as a template for cutting my circles btw.

Now you can spoon your filling onto the full circle that will serve as the base- and again, leave a good area uncovered around the outer edge so that you can seal the 2 layers together when you cover it.

Fold back the tips of the pastry until they almost reach the outside edge and press them down rather firmly. You will find that as the pastry bakes later on, these will try to unfold anyway- so a little more gentle pressure at the beginning is a good thing. Otherwise they will lift up and become brown before the rest of the pie is baked through and possibly even burn... so- do as you're told!

Now you can set the lid carefully on top and then, simply using a fork, press down and seal the top to the bottom all the way around... just like in the old days!

And now you can pop your little creation into a non-stick pan and heat this up on your stove top for 2-3 minutes, at a high heat, until the butter in the pastry begins to melt, the pastry begins to look soft and doughy and you feel like panicking- haha!

Nope- after 2-3 minutes, simply transfer the pan to the oven and continue baking as normal for 20-30 minutes at 200°C until the pastry if puffed up and gloriously golden brown. 

If you don't have a heat-proof handle on your pan- you can simply cover the handle with foil, which is what I do.

If you look at your pastry after 10 minutes or so, you may begin crying and feeling miserable, because of course, it will become very moist and soggy and will be droopy and sorry looking. In any case- that is how it was for me! haha! But, have faith, give it time, and as soon as the pastry begins to bake proper, it will indeed puff-up and rise and look lovely!

And because you "baked" your pastry on the stove top first and gave it a blast of heat from below, the base will have enough of a head-start to make it firm and crisp and not soggy.

We only added 1 tablespoon of jam, and still, as you can see here, that will produce plenty of juice which will still find a way to ooze out. So- listen to me- remember that less is more when it comes to the jam- and use that pan!

Whilst you have taken the tart out of the oven and it is piping hot, sprinkle the outer edges of the opening of that star-shape with ground pistachio- this will also help to absorb any excess juice. Then return for a final 5 minutes, just so that the pistachio gets toasted too, without losing its color.

There you go- you are all done... you have done it by yourself- and you have every right to feel proud!

Use a sharp knife, use the frying pan trick... and be sure to get results like this!

And yes indeed- this tastes like Christmas!

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Three Sides to This Story!

Triangoli di Filo con Ricotta, Pancetta, Agrumi, Peperone & Peperoncino con una Insalata di Radicchio Rosso & Mandarino
Filo Triangles with Ricotta, Bacon, Citrus, Peppers & Chili with a Salad of Red Radicchio & Mandarin Orange

This may not seem a very "Wintery" meal at first sight- what with that salad, all bright and colorful and refreshing... and yet it is absolutely seasonal! We are beginning to get mandarin oranges from Sicily now and the beautiful red and green loose-leaf radicchio are also just beginning to come in-season- and so why ever not use them in combination!?! 

The sweetness of the fruit balances the bitterness of the leaves wonderfully! And the salad itself made for an excellent side dish to these little filo parcels... read on and I shall tell you more about them!

These are the kinds of little snacks me and my sisters would make for an occasion like Christmas Eve, where after having enjoyed a full lunch, most Sicilians will tend to eat small, savory tidbits like these in the evening.

I improvised these from a remaining 6 sheets of filo pastry, a last few of scoops of ricotta and a couple more bits and pieces... making good use of a few left-overs... as one does, a few days before leaving on vacation!
For the filling of my little parcels, I needed 4 tablespoons of ricotta, 2 tablespoons of finely chopped bacon, 2 small green pepper, chili flakes or simply pepper according to taste, a little zest from the mandarin, a pinch of salt, a drizzle of olive oil and as I already mentioned, 6 sheets of filo pastry.

As for the salad- well, that was just a very simple side of radicchio with a few mandarin orange segments, salt, pepper, dried oregano, a little balsamic vinegar and some extra virgin olive oil.

Savory snacks to nibble on and a refreshing, crisp salad to cleanse the palate- and totally easy to prepare at the same time! It's always great when you can just whip something together out of nowhere... it needn't be difficult to do either!

For these little "samosa styled" parcels, I mixed together a filling made of 4 tablespoons of ricotta, to which I added 2 tablespoons of finely chopped bacon, 1 finely chopped and mildly spicy green pepper, the zest of half a mandarin orange, a pinch of chili flakes and a pinch of salt.

Once the mixture was thoroughly stirred-through, I cut the filo pastry sheets into 4 equal strips and then taking the pastry 2-sheets at a time, scooped a little teaspoon of filling and set it out at one end.

I then folded the pastry shut, diagonally and squeezed the outer edge together... the stickiness of the cheese-filling holds everything in place wonderfully- so that you can continue to fold 2 more times in until your triangular parcels are full.

I found that I only needed half of the length of each strip of pastry for each parcel... which means that I got plenty of parcels from just a few spoonfuls of filling... which is a good thing when they are so delicious!

I layed out my little triangles on a baking sheet, brushed them from both sides with a little olive oil and popped them into a hot oven, at 200°C for 5-6 minutes before flipping them over and continuing baking for a further 5-10 until they were crispy and golden brown from each side.

Simple, delicious and yes of coarse- just as tasty and fun served cold as they are hot! But with a lot less oil or grease as when they deep fried! Which is a very, very good thing!

Light, crispy, flakey, and wonderful little parcels with a rich and flavorful, creamy interior! Remember there are lots of great flavors going on inside!

For the salad, simply thoroughly wash those little leaves, as they do tend to trap dirt. Then peel a mandarin orange and add the segments, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt, pepper, dried oregano and add a splash balsamic vinegar to round things off and you are ready to serve- and to enjoy!

Just so wonderfully colorful and refreshing! Quite simply so!

And with a few of those cool nibbles on the side, this was a plate full of sunshine on a grey and dreary Winters day!

And with a few of those cool nibbles on the side, this was a plate full of sunshine on a grey and dreary Winters day!