madonna del piatto

Italian family cooking


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roasted rosemary mushroom parcels

 

I made these parcels with a sheet of transparent oven paper

oyster mushrooms wrapped in parcels made with a sheet of transparent oven paper

After having been involved with teaching and thinking about food for over than 10 years,  I am completely convinced  that the art of Italian cooking is to extract flavor from food rather than adding flavor through elaboration. This is the ultimate discovery of modern Italian cuisine. Not the foams, not the rare ingredients, not the fancy presentations. That’s culinary school stuff and to me it rarely has something to do with real food.

With time I have realized that to take something very simple like a vegetable, or a piece of meat or fish or a package of flour and bring out its original flavor is difficult. It can only be done with excellent ingredients and to obtain that you need to constantly research and evaluate the quality of what you are using. Obtaining good ingredients for everything you cook is a form of inner discipline and not always obvious or easy.

But why is it so worth it? We humans love food not only as a form of sustenance but also because of its chemical complexity which stimulates the brain and induces pleasure. The more you have something fresh, grown in a natural way and not treated with chemicals or long refrigeration the more fragrant and complex the original taste of the food will be. As a consequence you hardly need to do anything to it except a minimal manipulation to bring out and enjoy its native flavor.

This recipe is an example of what I mentioned above. It will be heavenly if you have wild mushrooms. And even with the cultivated ones, it will only work with fresh mushrooms and herbs and really good olive oil.  There is not much else in it after all.

Recipe

  • 350 gr (12 oz) fresh whole mushrooms, cleaned.
  • 4 sprigs rosemary
  • 4 small garlic cloves, peeled
  • 4 slices pancetta or guanciale (optional)

Preheat oven at 180°C (360°F).

For this recipe you need to have fairly large pieces to retain the meaty texture of the mushroom. Thin slices will basically boil in their own moisture and as a result will be gummy or stringy.  Whole oyster mushrooms and small chanterelle will need no slicing. If you use large portobello or porcini it’s better to slice them in half or quarter by the length.

Cut four 20×20 cm (8×8 inch)  pieces of parchment paper or prepare 4 small oven bags. Arrange 1/4 of the mushrooms on the paper together with a sprig of rosemary and one garlic clove. Add a slice of pancetta if using. Season mushrooms with salt and pepper, drizzle  with one teaspoon extra virgin olive oil, then  seal the paper parcel or oven bag and transfer in an oven tin.

Bake for 20 min and serve warm directly in the parcels. You can also serve them at room temperature in which case remove the parcels and transfer into a dish. Drizzle with good extra virgin olive oil just before serving.

Serves 4.

PS. I am not at all opposed to cooking the parcels on the BBQ. In this case I’d use foil, not plastic or paper.

baked oyster mushrooms

beautifully baked and fragrant, if you can ever call a mushroom “beautiful”

 

From Wikipedia:

“En papillote (French for “in parchment”), or al cartoccio in Italian, is a method of cooking  in which the food is put into a folded pouch or parcel and then baked. The parcel is typically made from folded parchement paper but other material, such as a paper bag or aluminum foil may be used. The parcel holds in moisture to steam the food. The pocket is created by overlapping circles of aluminum foil and parchment paper and then folding them tightly around the food to create a seal. A papillote should be opened at the table to allow people to smell the aroma when it opens.”


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savory cauliflower crostata

savory gluten free crunchiness, so delcious, so light.

savory gluten-free crunchiness, so delicious, so light

Does cauliflower count for detox? That’s what we are supposed to do for at least one week in January, isn’t it? Have you done the salad treatment and figured it’s bad for you since there’s a foot of snow outside? It’s too cold for self-inflicted punishment.

I am so glad is not bikini time yet. That’s even worse than New Year detox. Lucky me I don’t even wear a bikini anymore.

As a consequence I can have this wholesome, gluten-free food which is every bit as good and crunchy as any gluten equivalent. Not bad for a healthy dose of veggies and – as an added bonus – is wonderfully easy to digest.

Recipe

  • 1 cauliflower, cleaned and separated into florets
  • 1  garlic clove
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 5 eggs
  • 5 tablespoon grated parmesan
  • 200 gr (7 oz) young Pecorino or Asiago, diced
  • 125 gr ( 1 and 1/8 cup) tapioca flour
  • 125 gr ( 1 and 1/8 cup) glutinous rice flour
  • 125 gr (1 stick) butter

Preheat oven to 200° C/ 390° F.

Using my food processor method for sweet pastry, make the savory shell using the tapioca and glutinous rice flours, 2 eggs, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 2 tablespoon Parmesan and enough cold water to obtain a firm dough. I have tried to make pastry with various gluten-free flours but this is by far the easiest and most consistent in terms of structure and flavor.

Line a 10 inch ( 25 cm) tart pan with parchment paper. Roll the dough into a 1/2 cm (1/4 inch) thin disk and transfer into the tart pan so to make a case with shallow sides. I roll the dough onto a clingfilm sheet and then I flip it into the lined tart pan.

Cover with the clingfilm and transfer in the refrigerator for at least 1/2 an hour and up to half a day. This crucial step will give you a crispy shell.

Blanch the cauliflower florets in plenty boiling water, drain.  Saute 1 finely minced clove of garlic in 2 tablespoon olive oil until fragrant. Add cauliflower florets and saute briefly to infuse in the garlicky oil. Season to taste with salt and black or red pepper. Set aside.

While the cauliflower is cooling, whisk 3 eggs with 1/2 cup milk and the rest of the grated parmesan. Transfer the cauliflower into the pastry shell and top with diced Pecorino cheese making sure to push the cubes in between the florets.

Pour the egg mixture over the tart and transfer into the oven.

Bake the crostata in middle of the oven 45 minutes, or until the crust is golden. We love it hot from the oven but it’s still good at room temperature.

Serves 4 as a vegetarian main, 6 as a side or appetizer.

PS. If in a hurry, using good quality store-bought puff pastry is a quick alternative to the pastry shell. In this case it’s obviously not suitable for a gluten-free diet.


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roasted eggplant ricotta dip with fresh zucchini salad

the crunchy zucchini salad makes a wonderful contrast with the soft and silky eggplant puree

Eggplant. It’s been good to have you through this cruel summer, the hottest and dryest in decades.

Sweet, firm, smooth, full of the flavor of Arabian nights. We did a lot of nice things together, hot things.

But now it’s over.

This is the last time. In a short while you will be spongy, seedy and quite frankly, limp. I don’t want you in the winter. Please don’t call me, I will ignore you. But thank you, you’ve been nice, lovely actually.

Recipe

  • 5 eggplants (about 2 kg /4 lbs total weight)
  • 2 onions
  • 4 garlic cloves
  • 250 gr / 1 cup ricotta
  • a handful fresh basil leaves or mint
  • 4 tablespoon toasted almonds
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • 2 zucchini

Pierce eggplants several times with a fork and place them on a baking sheet lined with aluminum foil. Bake  in preheated oven at 220 C (430 ° F) until very soft. Turn them around every 20 min so they cook evenly. Let them cool, peel, chop roughly and transfer in a colander with a weight on top to drain the excess moisture. I bake the eggplants the night before, place them in a colander to drain and finish the dish a day later so the rest of the preparation is quick and convenient.

Chop the onions finely and saute in two tablespoons olive oil until translucent. Add the chopped eggplants and cook uncovered for 10-15 min. This will dry them further and bring out the flavor. Stir occasionally.

Add the minced garlic and torn basil leaves, cook for further 5 min, season with salt and black pepper to taste and let it cool.

Transfer in a food processor, add the ricotta and toasted almonds and puree until smooth.

Just before serving, shred the uncooked zucchini and toss with olive oil, salt and a squirt of lemon juice.  Arrange the zucchini shreds in a ring shape on a serving plate.

Pile the eggplant puree in the centre of the zucchini ring, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with fresh basil. Serve with toasted crusty bread, pita or as a side vegetable to roasted meat.

It’s great party food, a sort of Italianized baba ganoush that might please even the unlucky few that don’t love eggplants. I adore them, in the summer.

Serves 10


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Italian whole-grain salad

this wholesome salad is easy, nutritious and adaptable to all sort of whole-grains

Dear Tomato I want to thank you for existing.

For being a fresh, juicy, sweet, fleshy fruit.

Ask any Italian “what do you eat during this exhaustingly hot summer”? Tomatoes – they will say – it’s a national obsession.

This salad is a way to make a wholesome meal or substantial side dish out of a classic tomato salad. Healthy food does taste good if you know how to treat it. The salad also looks beautiful as it’s presented in layers rather than mushing up everything together.

You can tweak the composition to your taste but there’s a few rules to keep the Italian character of the recipe:

  1. Keep it rustic, use whole grains. I generally use farro which is abundant in Umbria and has a lovely nutty taste but you could use barley, wheat berries, bulgur or wild rice. What you see in the picture is my gluten-free version made with the splendid black rice from Northern Italy.
  2. Keep it light. Use only one type of cheese in modest amounts. I use shavings of Pecorino or Parmesan or fresh mozzarella. Feta? No, it’s not Italian. Blue cheese? No, it’s heavy.
  3. Keep it seasonal. I use cherry tomatoes in the early summer and then switch to whatever marvelous variety is at its best when I need it. I use crispy thin salad leaves like rucola (arugula, rocket), lamb’s lettuce or a combination of mixed salad greens. I don’t make this salad with glasshouse tomato. There is no point if they have no flavor.
  4. Last but most importantly, please no pre-made dressings, only top quality extra virgin olive oil and aged balsamic vinegar. A little goes a long way.

Recipe

  • 200 gr ( 7 oz) farro
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 250 gr (1/2 lb) ripe tomatoes, sliced or quartered if small
  • 2 cups light salad leaves
  • 3 tablespoon cheese shavings
  • extra virgin olive il, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper
  • optional: a handful basil leaves and 1-2 spring onions diced very small

Cook farro or other grain in plenty boiling water according to package instructions. Drain, rinse under tap water and transfer into a bowl. Add one crushed garlic clove and stir in 1 tablespoon olive oil. Cover, set aside and let it cool and infuse with the garlicky oil for several hours. You can also refrigerate it until the next day.

When ready to serve, slice tomatoes, add basil leaves and onions if using. Dress with 1 tablespoon olive oil, salt and black pepper.

Slice or shave the cheese.

Wash and spin dry the salad leaves, dress with 1 tablespoon olive oil and salt, then make a bed of leaves on a serving plate with some space in the centre where you will make a mound with the cooked grains. This way you will have a pretty border of salad leaves around the grains.

Top the farro with the tomatoes and dressing juices. Sprinkle with the cheese shavings and drizzle with balsamic vinegar. Serve immediately.

Serves 4-5


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baked cardoons

fresh cardoons, a typical winter vegetable in Central Italy

PARMIGIANA DI CARDI.

This is a recipe which smells intensely of Christmas to me. It reminds me of my mum, perennially standing in her tiny kitchen, creating complicated wonders. Oddly, she hardly made a sound while cooking for a large party, I could hear her breathing.

It reminds me of how my father and I would sneak into the kitchen to steal the fried stems, subtly aromatic, tender as butter. Those and the mellow leftovers we enjoyed the most, as the rest got confused in the abundance of the holiday banquet.

to clean cardoons, remove the outer fibers and inner membrane of the stem

Artichoke and leafy cardoon are two varieties of the same plant . The first is cultivated for its immature inflorescence – also called globe – and the second for its fleshy stems. The taste of cardoon is reminiscent of celery and artichoke with a hint of bitter which is eliminated by blanching. When buying, make sure to pick those with white stems and without signs of rusty spots

Recipe

  • 2 kg ( 4 lb) fresh cardoons, outer damaged leaves removed
  • 1 lemon
  • 2 eggs
  • 100 gr (3 oz) all-purpose flour
  • 250 gr ( 1/2 lb) mild cows cheese like caciotta (use fresh Asiago if not available)
  • 1 recipe ragù
  • 1 recipe bechamel (white sauce)
  • 60 gr (2 oz) grated Parmesan or pecorino cheese

This is a work intensive recipe, I suggest to prepare the cardoons, blanch them and fry them on the first day and make the tomato, bechamel sauce and assemble the parmigiana on the second day.

Day 1

To clean cardoons,  strip the fibres from the stems with a pairing knife, cut them into 5 cm (2 in.) pieces and  plunge them  in cool water that has been acidulated with the juice of half a lemon.

Add the other half of the lemon to a pan of water you will use to cook the stems. Bring the water to the boil, add 1/2 tablespoon of salt.  Blanch until tender but still firm, 20 to 30 min. Meanwhile whisk the eggs in a large bowl.

Drain and rinse in cold water, pat dry and dredge in flour. Transfer the floured cardoons in the eggs and deep fry them in vegetable oil until lightly golden.

Make sure to work in batches to avoid overcrowding the pan. Drain on paper towels and season with salt and pepper.

If you don’t like to fry, line the largest roasting tin you own with parchment paper. Place the cardoons well spaced on a single layer and bake until colored in a preheated oven at 250 °C (480 °F) , turning once.

Day 2

Make the tomato and bechamel sauce. Slice the caciotta. Prepare all ingredients on your work-top. Butter a 20 x 30 cm (8 x 12 in) gratin dish. You should have enough cardoons to make three layers.

Arrange the cardoons in a single layer at the bottom of the pan. Cover with one third of the sliced cheese and sprinkle one tablespoon of the grated cheese. Drizzle approx. 3 tablespoon of the tomato sauce and 1 and 1/2 tablespoon of the white sauce on the layer. Make sure to use modest amounts of sauce or you will end up with a gloppy soup!

Continue building up the layers ending with Bechamel which will form a lovely crust. Bake in preheated oven at 200° C (390° F) until golden and set, approx. 30 min.

The version  in the picture below is vegetarian and gluten-free. I substituted ragù with a simple tomato sauce and regular flour with rice flour. It’s every bit as delicious as the original one, just lighter.

Serves 6 as a main, 8 as a side

my mother's Christmas treat, I miss you mum.


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grilled lemon-and-garlic marinated eggplants

melt in the mouth, grilled eggplants marinated in garlic, lemon juice and olive oil

I think nobody who doesn’t know me already is ever going to find this recipe. There’s 1 million and 970 thousand hits for “grilled eggplants” on Google. With more than 2 million people out there who can grill eggplants this is probably going to be slightly redundant.

The thing is, I did not grow up with grilled eggplants. I have only learned how to make them in relatively recent times.

My mum – as every good Sicilian – only used fried eggplants. She put those juicy slabs on pasta and parmigiana , smothered in thick  tomato sauce and sprinkles of fragrant basil. Heavenly, but with the inconvenient characteristic of migrating directly to the hips to accentuate unwanted rotundity.

On the other hand, the world is full of badly grilled eggplants. Have you ever returned from the BBQ/grill with those stripey bitter shoe-soles trying to decide if they were suitable for human consumption?

Did you swear you’ll never make them again?

Try this. It’s foolproof, smoke-free :) and tastes lovely and light.

Recipe

  • 1 eggplant / aubergine
  • 1 garlic clove, sliced
  • juice of 1/4 lemon
  • 2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

First of all, please make sure to use plump, fresh eggplants in season. Winter ghosts will not do.

As for cooking, best results are obviously obtained with a charcoal/wood BBQ, but a stove-top cast iron grill is a valid alternative and much faster.

While your cooking implement is heating up, peel and cut eggplants crosswise into 3-4 mm (1/10 inch) thick slices. Transfer in a plate making no more than two layers. Place the olive oil, garlic and lemon juice in shallow bowl to make a marinade. Add some chopped basil or parsley if you like.

Here comes the first surprise. Pop them in the microwave for 1-2 min until they just start getting moist and tender.

And the second surprise. Grill the slices without oiling them, you’ll have no smoke.

As soon as the slices are cooked through and slightly charred transfer them in the marinade and covered so they will infuse.

If you have time, prepare them a couple of hours in advance and serve at room temperature . You can also serve them sooner but let them cool off a little. Season with salt just before serving.

Serves 2-3 as a side dish.


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potato gateau

crispy potato gateau

SAVORY POTATO PIE a.k.a. GATO’ DI PATATE.

There are moments I so miss my mother  presenting one of her meals with that special look in her eyes. She had it when she knew she had made something really delicious. She would never compliment herself though, she was too modest for it.

She would simply mention offhandedly “è molto condito” meaning “it’s rich”. Then we knew she liked it.

And even if rich, her food was balanced. Always cooked to perfection with no ingredient dominating the others, a marriage of quality and skills.

In my life I have had the opportunity to travel the world and taste all sorts of delicacies. Nevertheless, she is still my absolute measure. I don’t need to make sophisticated dishes. If I can make a simple home recipe like she did, then I have achieved something. Her gateau was the best.

The gateau is a potato savory pie of Neapolitan and Sicilian tradition. Just like sartu, the potato gateau is a dish developed in the XVII century by French cooks employed at the Bourbons court in Naples .

For me it’s family food through and through. It has a smell of togetherness which brings me back to childhood and happy summer dinners . You only need a salad with it and a handful of cherries as a dessert.

A perfect Italian meal.

Recipe

  • 1.5 kg (3 lb) potatoes, preferably new.
  • 60 gr ( 2 oz) grated Parmesan
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon salt, black pepper to taste
  • 250 gr (9 oz) mild cheese (e.g. caciotta), sliced
  • 120 gr (4 oz) cooked ham
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 teaspoon butter
  • 2 tablespoon bread crumbs or gluten-free equivalent

Place potatoes  in a pan of salted water, bring to the boil and cook until tender. Drain, then mash the potatoes. Use preferably a mouli or potato ricer to obtain a soft and airy mash. Mix with the eggs, grated Parmesan, salt and pepper and a couple of tablespoon olive oil.

Preheat oven at 180 °C / 350 °F.

Butter generously a 10 inch wide ovenproof dish and dust it with breadcrumbs. Line the dish with a 1 cm (1/2 inch) thick layer of potato mash. You need to make sure that the potato layer is compact enough on the sides so that it will hold the filling. Layer half of the cheese and ham on the bottom of the potato shell. Add an additional 1 cm (1/2 inch) thick layer potato mash over it. Add the rest of ham and cheese and top with the rest of the potato. Dust the top with breadcrumbs, a good sprinkle of grated Parmesan and a few curls of butter.

Bake for 30 min until slightly golden. Allow to rest for at least 10 min before serving.

Serves 6 as a meal, 8 as an appetizer.

PS. You can make the potato pie easily vegetarian by substituting the ham with chopped blanched spinach which you have quickly saute in olive oil and garlic to dry them and infuse with extra flavor.

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