A taste of Italy
Make your friends an offer they can’t refuse. Impress them with ‘bellissimo’ Italian dishes. Of course there is one possible disadvantage — you could be inundated with numerous repeat requests.
Antonio Carluccio is considered as something of a culinary ‘Godfather’ for his influence on Italian gastronomy. I was with him while he cooked mussels and squid (calamari) using some of our local ingredients. He loves the fact that there is always something to learn about food but he does remain loyal to the foods and cooking traditions of his country. However, I’ve created my own version of his squid in white wine.
Giuliano Bugialli is another charismatic Italian chef who we have to thank for making the dessert tiramisu so popular. Tiramisu literally means ‘lift me up,’ and it is an old favourite of Venice courtesans as an aphrodisiac of sorts to fortify themselves between amorous encounters. Giuliano introduced the dessert to America about 30 years ago when he first started his New York Cooking school. So many bastardised versions of the dessert had been published that he wanted to return authenticity to this popular sweet treat. True tiramisu contains only mascarpone cheese, strong coffee, egg yolks, sugar, heavy cream and grated chocolate but no liqueur or cocoa powder.
Besides this, Giuliano taught me that it’s okay to fry in olive oil — even extra virgin olive oil.
For Italians, cooking and sharing food is the essence of life, whether it is at home with friends, in a humble trattoria or a fine-dining restaurant. Produce varies region-to-region and even village-to-village. And Italians can be fiercely parochial when it comes to food, invariably thinking their village’s version of a dish as the best.
To make it tender-as, squid can be cooked in two ways: quickly — for 1-2 minutes; or on low heat for about an hour. This recipe uses the latter method — the flavours are mellow and delish. Serves 4.
Large pinch saffron threads
3 tablespoons hot water
5-6 medium squid tubes (thawed, if frozen)
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large shallot
1 green capsicum, diced
4 sprigs thyme
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
6 anchovies, chopped
¾ cup white wine
1½ cups frozen peas
- Soak the saffron in the hot water for 30 minutes.
- Cut the squid tubes into 1.5cm rings. Pat dry.
- Heat the oil in a deep frying pan on medium. Pan-fry the shallot, capsicum, thyme, garlic and anchovies for about 5 minutes. Add the wine. Boil for 5 minutes.
- Add the saffron and squid. Cover and simmer on low heat for 1 hour. Add a little fish stock if too dry. Add the peas and simmer for 5 minutes.
- Great served with crusty bread to mop up the liquid.
My inspiration for this delight came from the Italian chefs aboard the Oceania Insignia. I recently enjoyed a similar crêpe for lunch while the ship was in port Auckland. Serves 4.
Crêpes (makes 8)
2 tablespoons plain flour
1 tablespoon water
1 tablespoon milk
350g packet frozen spinach, thawed & squeezed dry
1½ cups ricotta cheese
Salt & freshly ground black pepper to taste
Pinch grated nutmeg
1 large egg, lightly beaten
¼ cup grated parmesan cheese
100g mozzarella, shredded
3-4 cups good pasta sauce
¼ teaspoon chilli flakes
¼ cup chopped parsley
- To prepare the crêpes, whisk the eggs, flour, water, milk and salt, until well combined. Stand for 3 hours or overnight.
- Melt a little butter in a 16cm crêpe pan on lowish heat. Pour in enough batter — about 2 tablespoons — to make a thin layer on the base. Cook until just coloured. Flip the crêpe over and cook the other side.
- Stack the crêpes with waxed paper in between. These can be prepared well ahead and frozen if necessary.
- Combine the spinach with the ricotta in a bowl. Season then add the nutmeg, egg, parmesan and a ½ cup of mozzarella.
- Bring the pasta sauce, chilli flakes and parsley to the boil.
- To bake, place a cup of the pasta sauce in the base of a lightly oiled baking dish, about 24cm x 18cm.
- Place a ¼ cup of the ricotta mixture on one crêpe and roll up. Place seam-side down in the baking dish. Repeat with the remaining crêpes and filling. Spoon the remaining pasta sauce on top and sprinkle with the remaining mozzarella.
- Preheat the oven to 180°C. Cover loosely with foil and bake for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for 5 minutes more.
Aaah gnocchi! Named for the Italian baroque composer, Pietro Gnocchi, these little soft dumplings are one of my present faves. Serves about 6.
500g Agria potatoes, washed, skins on
1 small egg
¼ cup finely grated parmesan cheese
Pinch ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon salt
½ - ¾ cup plain flour
- To prepare the gnocchi, place the potatoes in a heavy-based saucepan. Cover with cold water. Bring to the boil then simmer gently until the potatoes are just cooked, about 20 minutes.
- Drain the potatoes and peel while still hot. Mash the potatoes, preferably using a mouli. Cool.
- Meanwhile, whisk the egg, grated cheese, nutmeg and salt together in a large bowl. Add the mashed potato, sprinkle with the ½ cup of flour. Gently and evenly fold together.
- Turn onto a floured surface. Knead gently until the dough is springy. Add more flour if the dough is sticky.
- Quarter the dough. Roll one piece into a long sausage shape about 1.5cm in diameter. Cut into 2cm lengths. Repeat with the remaining dough. This makes about 60 gnocchi. They can be frozen at this stage if preferred.
- To cook, bring a large saucepan of lightly salted water to a simmer. Cook the gnocchi in small batches. They are cooked when they pop up to the surface. Using a slotted spoon, lift out the gnocchi and drain in a plastic sieve. Or place directly into a sauce and reheat.
Spinach was supposedly the favourite vegetable of Catherine de' Medici. Dishes served on a bed of spinach are known as ‘Florentine’, reflecting Catherine's birthplace, Florence. Serves 4.
250g fresh spinach, chopped
Salt & freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 large (500g) skinned & boned chicken breasts
3 tablespoons plain flour
½ teaspoon each: dried basil, oregano
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large shallot, diced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
¾ cup each: white wine, cream
- Preheat the oven to 180C.
- Wash the spinach, then steam in a saucepan or the microwave, until wilted. Cool a little then squeeze dry. Spread in a 19cm x 21cm baking in a baking dish. Season.
- Halve the chicken breasts lengthwise. Season then dust with the flour, basil and oregano.
- Pan-fry in a little of the oil until browned on all sides. Place evenly over the spinach.
- Sauté the shallot and garlic in the remaining oil in the same frying pan. Add the wine and simmer for about 3 minutes. Add the cream and boil until reduced by half. Pour over the chicken.
- Cover and bake for about 20 minutes, until cooked.