Minestra di fagioli

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Nearly 40 years on, I still have an all-too-clear memory of spending Saturday mornings down in St. Ann’s Park playing football (or worse still standing around waiting to play). Imagine a February morning, the wide-open space with no shelter, wind howling and icy rain falling horizontally and nothing but a football jersey (evidently designed for use in Ghana) to keep you warm. I’m sure you all know the feeling.

But then came the best part and as soon as the match was over, I’d race back home where the mammy always had a hot bath waiting for me. Just soaking there in the bath you could feel the warmth seeping into every single pore, injecting itself down to the bone, leaving you in the sort of blissful state that in later years I would only get after a five-course meal and a couple of armagnacs in a decent French restaurant, or one or two other things which it’s probably best not to write about in a food blog.

Well, today’s recipe is absolutely perfect for those times when you’ve been for a run up and down Djouce, shovelling snow from your drive or taking your dogs for a stroll along Tramore strand in the middle of a force 9 gale. But unlike the mammy’s hot bath, this one works from the inside out. It’s my Minestra di fagioli. This is translatable as “bean soup”, but if I call it that, everyone will just reply “I don’t care what it’s been, what is it now, ho ho ho?”. So Minestra di fagioli it is (pronounced “fah-JOE-li”). You get to learn Italian, and I get not to hear the snickers.

First of all there are endless varieties of minestra (and I mean that – the addition or omission of one ingredient can change the whole thing completely!) and you can experiment to your heart’s delight. Basically they are produced by gently frying the flavourings for your minestra (chopped garlic, onions, carrots, celery, herbs, etc.), then adding stock or water, then the “star” of your minestra (in this case beans, but things like chickpeas work a treat too) and finally pasta in some small format like ditali, ditalini, farfalline, quadrettini or stortini. You could also try farro (emmer wheat) or pearl barley instead of pasta. Neither will kill you and looking for them could keep you occupied for the next fortnight.

Probably the hardest thing about this dish is deciding whether or not to use tinned beans (the result will be lovely) or dried beans (the result will be totally indescribable). I’m presuming you won’t be able to access fresh beans, which would be the absolute ne plus ultra altogether. You also need to decide which beans to use. The types I use for this recipe are cannellini and borlotti beans, but you can substitute both or either of these with butter beans, green flageolet beans, black-eye beans, kidney beans or black beans. You should be able to find a reasonably large variety of tinned beans at any half-decent supermarket… you’ll have to hunt down the dried ones for yourself.

If you are going to use the dried variety, remember you’ll need to give them a cold bath first. It’s not that they’ve been naughty or that they’re dirty (though they probably are), it’s just that they’re dry. They’re mummified. There isn’t a drop of moisture in them. A bit like granny’s hands. You need to bring them back to life again, which means putting them in a bath of cold water – and lots of it… they have a nasty habit of growing – for at least 8 hours (10 or 12 is better). Most packets will have instructions on them but if not, after you’ve soaked them, rinse them and then pop them into a large pot with plenty of water (they keep growing!!) and no salt, bring them to a boil and let them simmer away merrily for an hour. After an hour, taste one. If it’s still a bit too crunchy, give them another half hour. Finally drain. They’re now full of life (I was going to say full of beans) and ready for use as described below.

So here we go with Minestra con fagioli. Stick the kids in an ice bucket and tell them to prepare for a thorough warming!

Ingredients for 4:

  • 1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed
  • 4 thin slices of onion
  • 2 medium carrots
  • celery, half a stick (with leaves)
  • herbs (chop and treble the amount if using fresh): 1 tsp rosemary; ½ tsp sage; ½ tsp basil; ½ tsp parsley (you can also use thyme, chives and tarragon for variety)
  • black pepper, freshly ground
  • 4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 200g chopped or sieved tomatoes (passata)
  • 1½ litres stock or water
  • salt
  • 200g cooked cannellini beans
  • 200g cooked borlotti beans
  • 200g ditali rigati

Method:

Chop the onion slices finely. Cut the carrots in half or thirds and cut each half or third lengthwise. Finely chop 2 or 3 of the resulting sticks. Do the same now with the celery – ending up with several chunky sticks and a bit of finely chopped celery. If you have the celery leaves, mince them (them… not your fingers!). Now bung all of the above into a large pot together with the garlic, herbs and 4 or 5 turns of a pepper mill. Then add the olive oil, turn on the heat and stir the contents so as to coat them all with the oil. Bring to bubbling point, reduce heat to a minimum and cover. Give it a stir every couple of minutes. Your kitchen should now be filled with an incredible aroma. If it’s not, you’ve forgotten to switch on the heat under the pot.

After about 5 minutes, when the vegetables are profusely sweating and have just started to soften, add your tomatoes. Stir heartily, bring to the boil again, reduce heat, cover and pop off for a cigarette. This time you can leave it to bubble away gently for about 10 minutes. You can see it’s having fun, so why disturb it? But when the 10 minutes are up you can boldly march in and announce “Enough is enough, sir!” while throwing the jugful of stock or water over the whole proceedings. Now you’ll have to go back to the “bring-it-to-the-boil-and-reduce-heat” routine. By the way, it helps if your stock or water has previously been brought to boiling point (now he tells me!).

Once the water has come to a boil, throw in the beans and add 2 or 3 good pinches of salt. Let this simmer, covered, for about 10 minutes. Cigarette break!

Now it’s the turn of the pasta, so off with the lid, in with the pasta and cook for as long as is indicated on the packet (anything from 3 to 10 minutes, depending on the format you use). Make sure the soup never goes off the boil and stir regularly, though not constantly, to stop the pasta sticking to the bottom of the pot like a limpet on the rocks at the North Pier in Howth. This is not the time to go off for a cigarette, but you can quite happily set the table or remove the cat from the diswasher.

Finally, taste your soup to see if it needs more salt (it probably will) and once you switch off the heat, allow it to settle for about 5-10 minutes before serving (just enough timeto finish setting the table, uncork the wine and round up the diners).

For that extra special touch, sprinkle some parmigiano reggiano over the soup once you’ve doled it into your bowls.

Winos will appreciate a light, zappy red wine with this… Something Umbrian like a Torgiano, one of the lesser Tuscan wines, even a Valpolicella (for anyone over 45, don’t let the name put you off!).

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Penne con le melanzane

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Here’s one I made last night, which I hadn’t had for quite some time. It’s a recipe from the deep South (Saudi Calabria, in fact) and features what is actually quite a difficult beast – the aubergine (or eggplant if you’re on the other side of the Atlantic). Difficult, I say, because there’s not actually an awful lot you can do with the buggers; indeed much of their use seems to be that of “filling out” dishes. They are great for absorbing fats and juices. They have a somewhat tobacco-smoky taste, which may or may not be due to the fact that the aubergine plant is a close relative of the tobacco plant; indeed the seeds contain nicotine, though you would need 9 kilos of aubergines to get the same nicotine as you would from 1 cigarette.

There are several varieties of aubergine: the classic purple (in standard, round and long varieties), black, white, green and so on. You will most likely find the standard ovoid, dark purple variety, which is more than satisfactory. If by any chance you do run into the round, pale purple variety, do try it, though.

The bitter taste of aubergines can be difficult for some people (particularly the chisellers), but there is a remedy. Half an hour before you start cooking the aubergines, dice them and put them in a dish. Sprinkle them with salt and then cover with a heavy plate (maybe even put a heavy pot, a nearby laptop or your eldest daughter on top). After half an hour or so, tip the dish into your sink and you’ll find a dark liquid running out. At this stage give your aubergines a quick rinse and a roll in a clean teacloth (clean means one you’ve taken out of the drawer!) to dry them. Be aware that salting the aubergines also reduces their capacity for absorbing oil and sauces. Lastly, it’s best not to peel your aubergines – you gain nothing and lose only flavour and time.

The type of pasta used for this dish can quite happily be changed at will, but basically you want something that will “capture” the sauce. Now, as it’s a chunky sort of sauce you need a type of pasta that can hold it. I’m suggesting penne as they’re easy to find, but you just as easily use rigatoni, pipe rigate or best of all, reginette (aka mafalde, both of which are disgusting royalist names but never mind).

So here goes for Merven’s Penne con le Melanzane.

Ingredients:

  • 200 g penne rigate (or mezze penne rigate)
  • 1 aubergine, diced
  • 200 g large ripe tomatoes, diced and drained
  • 1 clove of garlic, squashed
  • 4 thin slices of onion, cut in half
  • 1 small, dried chili
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • water
  • salt
  • parmigiano reggiano, thickly grated
  • fresh basil (2 or 3 leaves)

Method:

Take a deep, non-stick frying pan and add about 2 generous tablespoons of olive oil. Bung in your garlic, onion and chili. Bring to the boil and “sweat” for about 5 minutes on a low heat (the onions should sweat, not you… stand back from the cooker). If it looks like things are going to burn, add a little warm water. On second thoughts, add a bit anyway. You never know when the phone will ring. Then add the diced aubergine and cook for about 5 minutes over a medium flame, turning it regularly so that it cooks evenly on all sides.

Next add the chopped tomatoes (you can use the tinned variety) and give the mixture a good stir. Bring it to boiling point, turn the heat down and allow to simmer gently for about 10 minutes. At this stage add a good pinch of salt.

Fill a large pot with water and bring it to the boil, covered. When it is boiling, chuck in a good handful of coarse salt closely followed by the pasta. Give it a stir (and don’t forget to come back to it every few minutes for more!!). Once the pasta is cooked (remember, 1 minute before the time indicated on the pack!), drain it, plough a dash of cold water through it (a dash, not a shampoo and rinse) and dump it in a grave, ceremonial fashion into the pan where your aubergines have been bubbling away. Mix it all up, ensuring you coat the parts that even Heineken can’t reach.

Dole the result out into suitable containers (dishes are ideal) and serve with a generous sprinkle of parmigiano reggiano and a few shreds of fresh basil. And unless you’ve made some serious cock-ups along the way, it should look something like this:

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Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you… the tomato

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There are over 7,000 varieties of tomato in the world today (seems like our scientific community has been busy seeking perfection…) and Italy, naturally enough, is home to quite a number of them. Apart from the bog-standard tomato, the more notable Italian varieties are:

  • the San Marzano, a fleshy, thick-skinned tomato mostly used for making tomato sauces for pasta (they’re the longish ones you’ll find in a tin of tomatos);
  • the Costoluto Fiorentino, a ribbed, irregularly-shaped tomato usually used in salads when it’s still half-green;
  • finally not one but 4 different types of tomato grown in the Pachino district in south-eastern Sicily: the Pachino ciliegino (“cherry”), the Pachino costoluto, the Pachino a grappolo (“bunch-of-grapes”) and the Pachino tondo liscio (“round and smooth”), all of which have absolutely incredible flavours.

The Costoluto Fiorentino

No surprises for guessing that tomatoes are used in Italy for salads and for preparing tomato sauces for use with pasta and pizza. But there are other uses, too: they can be stuffed with rice and baked or used to braise thin steaks in, to name but two.

There are still plenty of Italians today who grow their own tomatoes and conserve them (usually in bottles) for use throughout the year – I remember passing several August bank holidays on a precarious hillside in Calabria, getting my fingertips scalded trying to clumsily peel freshly-boiled San Marzanos and chucking them into the mincer for bottling in a mass, family operation involving about 10 people, most of whom were sprightly octogenarians and who had done all the hard work of sowing and tending the tomato plants over the previous months.

This all produces wonderful results, but I can’t really expect you to go through the whole process, can I, particularly when I don’t bother to do it myself… You can quite happily use the canned and bottled varieties, though I will be including a few easy recipes which require fresh tomatoes.

One thing I would ask of you is to try to avoid buying fresh tomatoes completely out of season. The tomato season is roughly from June to October (earlier in southern Europe, later in northern and for late-ripening southern varieties). Fresh tomatoes in January in Ireland will probably have come from Chile or some other place in the Southern Hemisphere, so think of the environmental impact of bringing them all the way to your local greengrocer or supermarket. Italy is lucky as the south of the country can usually produce tomatoes all year round, with the use of greenhouses – less flavoursome, but perfectly acceptable.

So, you’ll mostly be using canned or bottled tomato. As far as the canned stuff goes, be aware that it comes in different formats:

  • Whole tomatoes (better if the can says San Marzano), usually peeled (pelati, in Italian). Sometimes described as plum tomatoes.
  • Diced tomatoes, sometimes known as “crushed” or “chopped”.
  • Cherry tomatoes. Only use these if you need cherry tomatoes and can’t find fresh ones.
  • Diced or simply “sauce” with added herbs (often basil or oregano). Avoid these like the plague. Stick to the simple stuff above.

In bottles you’ll find the stuff that probably a majority of my tomato-based past recipes call for – passata, or sieved tomato. This is simply what it says – peeled, sieved tomatoes. Both this and the first two of the canned variety should only contain tomatoes and salt in the list of ingredients. If there’sanything else, then forget it. Tomatoes are acidic enough not to need conservaties of any sort.

And talking of salt, tomatoes in any form really shine out with the addition of a little salt. If it’s a pasta sauce, add the salt about half-way through the cooking. On sliced beesteak (or other) tomatoes for a salad, I heartily recommend a little sprinkle of Maldon sea salt. Hypertensives will know what to do themselves…

Spaghetti aglio e olio

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Otherwise known as Aglio, olio e peperoncino (the “gli” in “aglio” is pronounced something like the “lli” in “million”) this is certainly one the simplest of all pasta recipes. This makes it perfect for those times when you need to get something quick together – an attack of the munchies, your in-laws dropping round unannounced, your other half’s gone away for the weekend and you can’t face another Chinese take-away… that sort of thing.

The name simply means “Garlic, oil and chili”, and is nothing more than a list of the only 3 ingredients apart from the spaghetti. Italian cuisine is strongly regional – each region in Italy has its own traditions and specialities – and this simple dish is claimed by several of them, so you may find variants around. This is the Roman version. Others like to add chopped parsley at the end, to counter the horrors of the garlic. While this may be appreciated by your friends, family and colleagues, in my opinion it completely changes the character of the dish.

There’s a time and place for parsley, Grealey, and this is not it.

Then there are some who swear that you need to complete the dish with grated cheese (something like parmigiano reggiano or pecorino romano). Again, I firmly believe that this ruins the simplicity of the dish. So just do what you’re told below and all will be well, I promise.

Despite its apparent lack of anything substantial, this is an extremely healthy, nutritious dish. Extra virgin olive oil is, unless heated to boiling point for extended periods, is an anti-oxidant and can lower blood sugar levels. Chilis are high in vitamins (B and C) and potassium and can even cure a headache. And garlic could practically replace the national health services of every country in the world, for all the wonderful properties it has (take a look at the garlic entry on Wikipedia if you don’t believe me).

Finally a word about the chili. Chilis come in all shapes and sizes and of varying strength. They are sold in various forms: fresh or dried, crushed or as a powder. Italian cuisine uses dried chilis only and in central Italy uses a variety that rarely exceeds and inch or so in length. They are not usually mouth-burningly hot, so if you’re using a different type of chili, try to adapt: for example, if you’re using a long, blast-your-trousers-off Indian or Thai-style chili, you’d only need about a quarter of it to reach the equivalent of an Italian chili. Experiment, that’s my advice.

Oh by the way, despite the name (see above in big letters), you can quite happily use other long forms of pasta, in particular linguine, but also vermicelli and capellini.

Ingredients:

250g spaghetti
1 clove of garlic, peeled, topped and tailed
1 or 2 small dried chilis
Extra virgin olive oil
Water
Salt

Method:

Fill a large pot (for spaghetti it is best to use a tall one rather than a wide one, but anything will do basically) with water and bring it to the boil (covered – it’s quicker and you save energy). When the water is boiling, bung in a large handful of coarse sea salt (the one with “fuck off” written on the pack), preferably iodized as it’s good for reducing the risk of mental retardation (it’s true!). Having picked your spaghetti from the tree, then throw it into the boiling water with a sort of Italian flourish (hold the “roll” of spaghetti at the top, lower it into the pot and then flick it loose with your wrists moving in an anti-clockwise direction; the result should be that the spaghetti is fanned out in the pot – one day I’ll get round to uploading a video of this operation). If the flourish is a non-option, just put the bloody spaghetti into the pot any old way. Once it’s in, start gently pushing it into the water. Then look at the time and calculate when you need to take it out (see article on pasta).

With the spaghetti cooking (and don’t forget to stir it every now and then!), you now have about 7-8 minutes to do the rest, so kick the cat out of the way and roll up your sleeves.

Take a frying pan, preferably one with a beefy bottom (let’s call it your “J-Lo Pan”), and add plenty of oil. Using an oil bottle with that plastic doo-dah they put in the neck to stop you from pouring our the entire bottle in one second, I usually start pouring and counting and stop when I reach 4. Alternatively about 6 tablespoons should be enough. Just remember you need this oil to coat all your spaghetti (Aha! You forgot to stir it again, didn’t you?).

Turn on the heat, throw in your clove of garlic (garlic-lovers can gently crush it or cut it into two first) and crumble in your dried chili. Now this is the tricky part: do not let this mixture burn. Keep thinking of it as J-Lo’s Bum – it needs warming, not setting fire to. The garlic and chili should only heat through gently (but not too gently, remember it needs to be ready in about 4 minutes by this stage, and stir that spaghetti!!). Give it a stir or swirl every now and then, and it’s ready when the garlic just starts to go brown.

When your spaghetti’s done, drain it (you did remember to have your colander ready, didn’t you?) and bung it into J-Lo, on top of the dressing. Turn off the heat and give it a good stir, ensuring you coat all the spaghetti. The dole it out onto your dishes and tuck in!

If you’re looking for something alcoholic to go with this, I can suggest nothing better than a crisp white from the Roman hills, something like Frascati or Marino, or something from the Umbria or Abruzzo regions with lots of trebbiano bianco in it.

Pasta, and how to treat it

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There are probably a million different types of pasta knocking around, human beings being as creative as they are. Oriental cuisine knows a good number of them (and indeed are credited with inventing pasta – or noodles – in the first place), but I’ll be dealing exclusively in Italian pasta. Pasta, or pastasciutta to give it its full title, literally means “dry dough”. Not very appetizing, I agree, but then neither is pasta on its own – and that’s where the sauces come in. So, while there may be around 20 popular commercial types of pasta available in the supermarkets (and many more if you count home-made past), there are literally countless ways of dressing the pasta (I say, put your knickers on there!), so the potential for this site is about 2,357,882 recipes. That should keep me occupied for the rest of my existence….

What is pasta?

Those of you who feel the need to do so can look up Pasta on Wikipedia where you’ll find a very detailed article with lots of information on the history, uses, production and even regulations regarding pasta (including a particularly nauseating list of US varieties – though I would call them deviants – of pasta). For everyone else, pasta is simply a mixture of durum wheat flour and water, formed into a dough, cut into whatever shapes pleases you and cooked, usually by boiling for anything between 2-12 minutes depending on the format and size. Fresh pasta – which you can often obtain outside Italy at specialist stores and even in some supermarkets – is, obviously, fresh and pliable and can be made with regular wheat, not durum. You may also find egg pasta, which uses eggs instead of water and, again, either durum or soft wheat.

How do I make it?

Fresh pasta is, I’m reliably informed, incredibly easy to make, though you need a large kitchen table to roll the dough with and a pasta machine to cut it for you, though a special hand-held pasta cutter will also do the trick. I have none of these things in my kitchen (mostly due to lack of space), but I will give you a friend’s recipe for this later.

In the meantime, you can quite happily continue to use the dry pastasciutta (that’s pronounced “pas-tah-SHOE-ta”), which most of the recipes here will call for anyway. I mean, why complicate your life even further?

What I don’t want to see you doing, is either using little jars of pre-prepared sauces or – horror of horrors – something that is all the rage here, at least, and that is nasty heat-and-eat bags of frozen pasta complete with dressing! Any of you caught doing that will be horsewhipped until the sun shines for one whole year in Ireland!

How do I cook it?

Each individual recipe will tell you what to do, but I’d just like to give you a couple of general tips here:

  • Only put pasta into boiling salted water.
  • Don’t forget your pasta after you’ve put it into the pot. Think of it as a small child* – incapable of looking after itself. It needs a stir every now and then to make sure it doesn’t stick together (which it has a nasty habit of doing).
  • Make sure the water doesn’t go off the boil (it will immediately after you put in the pasta, but that’s ok). And you don’t need to keep it boiling like mad either, which only wastes energy – just keep it bubbling over.
  • Don’t trust the time indicated on the packet: it is a guarantee for mushy, slimy pasta, the sort you eat in dodgy, touristy eateries round the corner from the main train station of most European capital cities. Not good. You get the idea. So, take it out 1 minute before the indicated time. For advanced users… instead of timing it, you need to taste it to know when it’s ready. You’ll get to know the point between still-hard pasta and too-soft pasta (technically known as the al dente point, meaning just ever the slightest bite in the pasta, but nothing actually hard), but that point disappears in the time it takes to shoo the cat out of your vegetable rack.
  • And another thing, you don’t need to rinse drained pasta in cold water. You’ve just drained it for feck’s sake… what do you want to go wetting it for again? Rinsing pasta is useful for stopping the cooking process (pasta is like a frog, it continues to live even when it’s out of the water), but you only need to dash a bit of cold water through the colander.
  • Finally, if you find you’ve cooked too much pasta, don’t chuck it in the bin – put it in the fridge covered with cling film and it will be perfectly good tomorrow or the day after. I’ll be including some “leftover” dishes along the way.

* Obviously, as my friend Steve pointed out, you wouldn’t have put a small child in a pot of boiling salted water in the first place…

Welcome!

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Welcome to this new blog, where I’ll periodically be uploading some of my favourite Italian recipes to share with anyone who appreciates cooking and eating good, simple food the way I do.

I came to Italy nearly 25 years ago as a scrawny, 65-kilo 24-year-old. Today my weight is that of the average female giant panda. Now, my partner, a hyperactive sort, is firmly convinced that many of those extra kilos are due to the fact that I move pretty much to the extent that a female giant panda with an empty diary would on an average rainy Sunday afternoon. And indeed I cannot argue with her on that. Though I would rather go for some sort of analogy with a sloth who’s been on the wacky baccy…

Movement, or lack of it, aside however, I am firmly convinced that the edge was taken off my angles as a result of food. Italian food. And too much of it, to be precise.

Now the better read of you (ie those whose reading is not limited to the back pages of the Mirror) will have heard that the Mediterranean Diet is the best in the world, a miraculous font of long life and happiness endowing its followers with the cleanest arteries in the galaxy and digestions that could rival Carl Lewis at his sparkly best. And it is. But olive oil and tomatoes can only go so far. Whatever way you put it, eating too much can only lead to one thing – bulk. So, let this be a warning to the astute reader: these recipes are (unless otherwise stated) for 2 portions, that is to say 2 good-sized, worry-not-about-the-waistline-I-am-a-consenting-adult portions. Feel free at any time to reduce the amounts at will. I, for my part, will continue to seek to ensure that a sharp gust of wind never blows me away…

PS. It’s a pollack, by the way.