madonna del piatto

Italian family cooking


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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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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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no-cook pasta sauce with tuna and cherry tomatoes

strozzapreti pasta with tuna, cherry tomatoes, olives

This pasta is good for:

  • when there is no time to make dinner but you still want real food
  • the pantry is empty (or almost)
  • it’s Monday
  • you are on low cal
  • before leaving for holidays
  • returning from holidays
  • unexpected informal dinner guests
  • whenever

This pasta has a sad version and a happy version. To make the happy version you must:

  • always have some bronze-drawn durum wheat pasta or frozen fresh pasta and really good extra-virgin olive oil
  • use high quality tuna packed in oil, even better if it’s in olive oil (I use Rio Mare)

Neglecting all the above will result in the sad version. Keeping a bunch of cherry tomatoes in your freezer is a life saver.

Recipe

  • one 200 gr (6 1/2 ounce) can imported Italian tuna in olive oil, drained and separated into chunks
  • 2 cloves garlic, very finely minced
  • 250 gr (1/2 lb) cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 300 gr/ 10 ounces spaghetti
  • a pinch sugar, salt

Optional:

  • 100 gr (3.5 oz) pitted and chopped Kalamata olives
  • 1 tablespoon capers preserved in salt, washed and drained
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
  • 1 fresh chili pepper

Using a shallow pan – a frying pan with high sides is ideal – saute the garlic in 2 tablespoon olive oil over very low heat. Do not brown the garlic, you only want to flavor the oil. Add the tuna chunks and stir until just warm. Add olives and/or capers if using. Increase heat, add tomatoes and saute quickly until they are only warmed through. They should not cook and lose their shape. Sprinkle with a pinch of sugar, add chili pepper if using and turn off the heat. The whole preparation should not take more than 5 min.

Meanwhile cook the pasta according to package instructions, or 1-2 min if using fresh pasta. The sauce is light and relatively dry, so it is suitable for spaghetti or short pasta shapes like the strozzapreti I used for the photo. It does not work well with fettuccine and the like.

When the pasta is cooked, turn the heat under the sauce pan to high. Drain and transfer to the sauce pan.  Stir the pasta quickly into the sauce as explained here. Add some pasta water – up to one tablespoon per person – and stir some more until the excess liquid is absorbed. Sprinkle with parsley and drizzle with fruity extra virgin olive oil. Serve on warm plates at once.

Serves 2-3


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pasta alla puttanesca

tortiglioni alla puttanesca

PUTTANESCA aka THE WHORE’S SAUCE. With a name like this you can only expect something spectacular. There are several metropolitan legends that try to explain the peculiar name. The one that makes more sense to me refers to prostitutes not having time or opportunity to shop and therefore making a quick sauce with ingredients available in the larder.

And ingredients are the key to the excitement. Good bronze drawn pasta, sun ripen tomatoes, tiny capers preserved in salt, anchovies packed in olive oil, sweet, firm, flavorful olives, fruity extra virgin olive oil, fresh garlic and parsley.

If you don’t have all the above please don’t be tempted to add cheese, tuna fish, mushrooms, roasted peppers, pancetta or other oddities. A good recipe is like a play, if one actor doesn’t know his part you can’t rescue it by having one someone who has learned a different role.

Recipe

  • 1 pound (500 grams) dried pasta
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon capers, soaked in water and drained
  • 5 oz (150 gr) Kalamata olives, pitted and roughly chopped
  • 2 anchovy fillets
  • 1 small dried red chile
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 (14 ounce/400gram) cans diced/crushed tomatoes
  • 1 good handful fresh parsley finely chopped

The recipe is traditionally made with spaghetti and olives from Gaeta. Short pasta like penne or the beautiful tortiglioni in the picture is easy if you need to feed a crowd. Gaeta olives are probably not common outside Italy but Kalamata are a good substitute.

The inexpensive, pizza style, ubiquitously bland black olives are generally unripe green olives that have been dyed with iron salts (ferrous gluconate) after artificial ripening. Avoid.

Saute the garlic, capers, olives, anchovies, chili in 2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil for a couple of minutes. Mash the anchovies with the back of a wooden spoon and when they disappear add the tomatoes, cover and simmer for 10 min until slightly thickened.

If you are not fond of chili pepper you can omit it and serve some of my spicy oil to those who do.

Cook the pasta in plenty salted, boiling water until al dente. Drain and transfer the pasta in the hot sauce. Stir quickly, add the fresh parsley and serve.

Serve 6

Spaghetti alla puttanesca


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spaghetti con asparagi

wild asparagus, a life changing experience

SPAGHETTI WITH (WILD) ASPARAGUS

Foraging is all the rage nowadays, but Italians have never stopped these sort of primitive habits.

My father has never made a walk for the sake of it in his entire life. He actually drives to my aunt’s house  300 mt away.  For a bunch of wild asparagus however, at 77 he still challenges the Umbrian slopes and the occasional viper. Viper? If you thought we had a quiet life up in the Assisi hills, read my friend Rebecca’s story about picking wild asparagus.

Tasting wild asparagus is a life changing experience and per se enough of a motivation to come to Italy in the spring. These fragrant strips of green are in the league of foods for the gods, like truffle or aged balsamic.

As all things intensely aromatic they need minimal manipulation and condiments. If you don’t have wild asparagus, take thin green cultivated asparagus. Just remember that your asparagus should still be green when you eat them. Please don’t overcook them to brown sadness. In order to succeed with this very simple recipe you need really fresh asparagus, fruity extra virgin olive oil and freshly grated Parmesan.

Recipe

  • 100 gr /3 oz wild asparagus or 300 gr /10 oz cultivated ones, cleaned and washed
  • 1 large garlic clove, very finely chopped
  • 1 small chili pepper, thinly sliced
  • 3-4 tablespoons EVO oil
  • 2-3 tablespoon grated parmesan
  • 350 gr /12 oz spaghetti

a) If using cultivated asparagus grill them in a little olive oil, infuse with garlic and chop as explained for risotto . Transfer them in a pan large enough to hold all the pasta you are cooking.

b) If using wild asparagus cut them in 2 cm/ 1 inch long pieces. In the above large pan, saute the garlic in 2 tablespoon olive oil until fragrant, about 30 sec. Add the asparagus and cover with water. Increase heat to high and cook stirring occasionally, about 6 or 7 min. By the time the water has boiled away the asparagus will be soft but still bright green.

At this point you have garlic infused asparagus, add the sliced chili pepper, cover and reserve.

To cook and sauce the spaghetti to perfection, please follow this method carefully:

While the asparagus are cooking, bring a 5 liter/ 5 quart pan of water to the boil. Add two heaping tablespoons of salt and bring to the boil again. The water has to be plenty and as salty as the sea otherwise the pasta will be bland.

Cook good quality spaghetti according to package instructions until just al dente. Drain and reserve at least 1/4 cup of the pasta water.

Transfer the pasta in the pan which holds the asparagus and turn the heat on high. Stir quickly and when the sauce is blended into the pasta add the cheese and half of the reserved cooking water. Stir again. The hot water will melt the cheese and will bind the condiment  so that all the flavor will be absorbed into the pasta.Use more water if the pasta looks too dry. You can also add a couple of tablespoon of cream. Drizzle with one or two additional tablespoons of  olive oil.

Now run to the table and eat it immediately, wonderfully moist, fragrant and let me say it, beautiful.

Serves 3-4


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insalata di carciofi e limoni

tangy, buttery and crunchy, this is just a perfect salad

ARTICHOKES AND SALT-BOILED LEMON SALAD.    I am such a simple soul. There are things that make me happy over and over again. Like finding a new good recipe.

I have lots of “old ” family recipes which I always make, they are safe. Of course I collect new recipes too. Too many of them.

I happen to be one of those who read cookbooks like a novel. In some cases, I read them so many times that eventually I feel  I have made friends with the cooks (or may be their ghost writers).

I get lots of inspiration but most often I will bend the recipe to the mood of the day and to what’s in my refrigerator.

Years ago however, I found this artichoke and lemon salad on The River Cafè Cookbook by  Gray and Rogers, two ladies I wish would have been my neighbors. This salad is  so perfect that does not need any interpretation, it cannot be adapted or improved, it’s mine for life.

Admittedly, I have decreased the amounts of olive oil, but that’s it. This is one of the advantages of living in Umbria:  my olive oil tastes better, I don’t need so much.

Recipe

  • 4 organic lemons
  • 6 small or 4 large artichokes
  • 150 gr (5 oz)  toasted almonds
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons soft raw honey
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • a sprinkle fresh thyme or basil leaves (optional)

Wash the lemons thoroughly and put 3 of them whole into a small saucepan. Cover with water and 100 gr. (4 oz) salt. Cover and boil for 20 min until the skin can be easily pierced with a fork. Drain, rinse with cold water and set aside.

Juice half of the remaining lemon, reserve.  Add the other half to a pan of water you will use to cook the artichokes. Bring the water to the boil, add 1/2 tablespoon of salt.

Drop the artichokes in the boiling water and cook for 20 min or until one of the central leaves comes away with a little give. Drain and cool. Pull away the outer tough leaves, trim stems, and cut away the choke if there is any. Quarter artichokes and then cut quarters in half again.

Cut the boiled lemons in half,  scoop out and discard the pulp and the inner segments. Cut the soft skins into strips and add to artichokes and almonds in a bowl. Season with salt and pepper.
Mix the honey with the lemon juice, then add the olive oil. Pour over the artichokes, add a little fresh thyme or basil if desired

Serves 4 as an appetizer or side dish


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peperoni all’aceto balsamico

a very Italian stir fry, balsamic glazed bell peppers

a very Italian stir fry, balsamic glazed bell peppers

BALSAMIC GLAZED BELL PEPPERS  More glorious summer colors and Mediterranean flavors here. Make sure to use large, thick fleshed, fresh peppers, yellow or red as the green ones are not sweet enough.

Capers are the edible buds of  a hardy bush which grows on walls and rocky soils in the  Aeolian islands, near Sicily. If possible, use small capers preserved in salt, they are more aromatic and less pungent than the pickled ones. This is a simpler version of a recipe I found on Antonio Carluccio’s book “Southern Italian feast”.

Recipe

  • 2 large red or yellow peppers
  • 3 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 1 tablespoon salted capers, rinsed
  • 2 anchovy fillets
  • 2 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

Deseed the peppers and cut them in 1/2-inch wide strips. Put the oil and pepper strips in a large, heavy based, pan and cook over fairly high heat for 10 min., stirring often to prevent burning.
Lower the fire, move the peppers strips towards the edge of the pan and add the pressed garlic, and anchovy, stirring quickly until the anchovy melts. Add vinegar, stir for a few more minutes, sprinkle with chopped basil and remove from the fire.  Let it rest for at least one hour and up to two days, it improves with time. Serve cold or at room temperature.

Serves 4

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