The Sunday post: summertime cooking

I’ve been prodded a number of times into getting back to cooking blogs, and who am I not to oblige? Let me start with a clarification, as in the past few months a number of events have kept me away from the kitchen: first of all, my Sundays have been busy with the golfing season. Golf is a strange beast: you walk for 8 miles and when you get home either you’re just too mad about your poor performance to enjoy anything other than some inventive cursing, or you had the perfect golfing day and it’s time to dine out and celebrate. On top of this, I also started having some back problems that pushed me into some diet attempts, and I thought you wouldn’t have been that much interested in unseasoned tomato salads and skimmed yogurt.

Last but not least, summer kicked in: as much as we didn’t quite experience a steaming hot climate so far, still summertime tends to keep me away from serious cooking. Ingredients are just too fresh to justify any convoluted recipe, and anyway the last thing you want to do on a scorching summer day is spending time in a overheated kitchen, sweating over a steamy risotto or burning your fingers on some chunky piece of meat. This doesn’t mean I’m not eating: I’m just trying to stay away from the stove, sticking to nice fresh stuff as much as I can and limiting my exposure to anything warmer than an iced tea.

This is why, during the summer, my oven comes to the rescue: baking doesn’t require physical presence, it’s just a matter of slicing, dicing, seasoning, whacking in the oven and sipping a freshener while the roaster does the rest. My typical weekends are now mostly about grabbing some fresh food and do whatever I can to find the shortest path from the grocery bag to the dining plate. I am still cooking, though, and I do have something to share: given I have to apologize for the long hiatus, this post will contain not one but two suggestions for your summertime meals! How’s that as a deal?

The first proposal is a simplified rendition of a Neapolitan classic, and it’s actually just a start to get your fantasy in motion, as this is a dish that can be easily adapted to whatever your taste is and what your refrigerator contains. We call it “Gateau di patate” (some misspell the French word and use “Gattò” instead), and it’s basically an easy peasy mashed potatoes pie. Start by boiling some spuds (remember to leave the skin on and, yes, if you’re brave enough, you could just bake them, as I suggested in a previous recipe). Mash them coarsely, don’t be overzealot: a few small lumps here and there actually help the texture. Add a handful of parmesan cheese, season to taste with salt and pepper. Throw a whole egg and two-three spoonfuls of white flour, carefully mixing it all together.

Get a plum cake mold now. Smear it with olive oil, then add some breadcrumbs. Shake the mold to ensure that the breadcrumbs stick to the bottom and walls, than grab your mashed potatoes, a glass of water and a spoon. Fill the bottom half of the mold, helping yourself with the back of a spoon which you should continuously keep wet so that potatoes don’t stick: keep in mind that if you move the mixture too much, the breadcrumbs will just get into the mix instead than forming a nice crust on the outside, so work your way with care. Try to carve some room in the bottom half, as the next step is adding some filling.

The golden rule with filling is “use your imagination”: our favorite is thick-sliced ham, slightly toasted in a frying pan to make it crisply, diced mozzarella cheese and some Parmesan, but don’t let our preferences hold you off. This stuff can be excellent with salami, chorizo, bacon, emmental, gorgonzola or goat cheese, and the mashed potatoes are just an excuse to enjoy your creativity. My suggestion would be to always have a mix of meat and cheese, but of course YMMV.

Once you’re done with the filling, just throw the remaining mashed potatoes, level the top and add some breadcrumbs and grated cheese which will form a nice crust. Whack everything in the pre-heated oven (180C) for 20-30 minutes, or until golden brown. Leave it to rest for at least 20 minutes before extracting your gateau from the mold. Slice it in thick slices and serve it with some green salad. Extra kick if you’re lucky enough to have leftovers: get a non-stick pan, a drizzle of oil and fry the remaining slices over a low heat. Serve it with some warm goat cheese, some nice peppery rocket salad, and a chilled glass of white wine: the world will be a much better place.

The second suggestion is perfect for a summertime dinner in a working day, when you come home exhausted from work and you need something fresh, quick and tasty. A typical summer dish in Italy is carpaccio, that is thin-sliced raw meat (or fish), seasoned with lemon juice of vinegar which perform a sort of cooking by acidity. The problem with carpaccio is that you really need to trust your butcher: health issues aside, raw meat needs to be just perfect to enjoy it, and given this times of grocery stores and supermarkets, finding a great chunk of meat is getting increasingly harder. This is why I find this variation an excellent alternative, as it requires just a little bit of cooking which is more then enough to guarantee an outstanding result in a few minutes.

The basic ingredient for this dish is (surprise!) carpaccio meat, which might not be that easy to find. If your local store doesn’t know how to prepare it, ask them to get a chunk of lean meat (fillet will be excellent, but you can use something cheaper like thick flank as well) and slice it as thin as a bacon strip or prosciutto. Of course there’s nothing preventing you from slicing it up: a good trick, even if it will somewhat compromise the taste, is throwing your chunck of meat for a couple of hours in the freezer, so that it’s firmer and easier to handle. Finally, you can have this dish with thicker meat as well: just adjust the cooking times accordingly.
Start by pre-heating your oven at the maximum possible temperature, moving the tray as high as you possibly can. Now cut a good portion of ripe cherry tomatoes: according to the size, you might want to slice them into halves or quarters. Crush a couple of garlic cloves, and toss them into a bowl with the tomatoes, some excellent olive oil, and possibly some rosemary and origano or thyme. Season with salt and pepper (hold the vinegar), and leave everything to rest for a couple of minutes.

Get a large baking pan now, capable enough to hold your meat in just one layer. A pizza pan is usually just perfect, given you want to have your meat as close to the grill as possible. Drizzle a bit of olive oil, and start coating your pan with the meat. Add the tomatoes on top, switch your oven to grill mode, and whack everything in. Mind you, cooking is going to be fast: two-three minutes are usually more than enough to heat the meat and have the tomatoes loose some precious juices. If you’re using a thicker cut of meat, chances are you’ll need more time for cooking: in that case, hold the tomatoes for the final two minutes. Serve it right away, maybe throwing some fresh green salad on top, and get ready for a round of applause.

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