The Sunday post: Harry Potter pizza

Doing good stuff properly requires time and dedication. That’s the case for pizza: other than being a bit about chemistry and alchemy (as all things baked), it entails quite a bit of time for proper processing. Twenty hours, to be more precise, which is by the way the time it took me to read the latest Harry Potter novel.

Let me start by admitting that homemade pizza is sort of a lost cause: very few home stoves are able to reach the 350°C required to cook the dough without burning the mozzarella on top, not to mention that a proper wood oven makes all the difference in flavour. This said, there are a few tricks that make homemade pizza a great experience altogether: you won’t beat some of the best pizza restaurants in Naples, but you will still be able to impress your friends and have a great meal.

The first ingredient you need, and the hardest to find, it’s time. Pizza is all about dough, and that’s a time consuming job that knows no shortcuts. The good news is that there’s no need for a lot of effort: you will be all set with little more than an hour of overall work, but you will need to spread that time over nearly a full day. Which is why having a weekend with a good book to read makes the perfect match. You might wonder why it takes so much to just mix some flour and water, especially now that we have industrial yeast and self-raising stuff: just know that the difference between your home made bread and the fragrance of a professional bakery is all in the process. The not so hidden secret of proper baking is called pre-fermentation, which (roughly speaking) can translate to providing the smallest possible quantity of yeast with a suitable environment to perform as its best. Roughly speaking again, yeast and time are reciprocal: the more time you have, the less quantity of yeast you will need. And you really want to have the least possible yeast in your mixture, as that will buy you better flavour, richer texture, and easier digestion. Just give it a try: I’m sure you will see the difference.

Back to our dough, now. There are many ways to achieve pre-fermentation: what I prefer is the Poolish method, that is a liquid mixture of equal quantities of flour and water, with some yeast added on top. For my pizza dough I started yesterday at 10PM by melting between 1 and 3g of fresh yeast (use 2/3 of that if all you’ve got is the dried variant) with 0.5l of water. Yes, that’s an impressive low quantity of yeast, and no, I didn’t miss a zero: you really don’t need much raising powder for this magic to happen, that’s what the Poolish method is all about. Once I was dead sure that all the yeast had melted, I threw 500g of sifted strong bread flour (we call it “Manitoba” over here) and started mixing. It took me just a few minutes to obtain a very sticky and fluid mixture, which needs to be covered with a towel or anything that allows the mixture to “breathe”, avoid tin foil and film. I called it a night and start wandering in Harry Potter land.

Today being Sunday, I was in for a late start, given also that my book got me hooked until very late at night. That was OK anyway, since it roughly takes from 12 to 16 hours for the mix to grow (it mainly depends on the temperature, just know that the whole thing is ready when it looks like not so inviting bubbly mess, roughly 2-3 times in size from the initial mixture): in my case, pre-fermentation was over around noon, and it was time for some late morning exercise, that is preparation of 300g of white durum wheat flour, 100g of semolina (both sifted), 25g of extra virgin olive oil and 25g of salt. It’s important to sieve the flour carefully, and add it to the mixture two-three spoonfuls at a time, mixing it in before adding more, adding olive oil and salt before getting on to serious kneading. Kneading isn’t about sparing efforts: it usually takes me 30 to 40 minutes to end up with an elastic silky paste that leaves me proud and satisfied, even though a bit tired. Shaping the dough into a ball and covering it with a wet towel was the last bit of action before getting on to some well deserved lunch treat (a great fresh mozzarella, some green salad and bresaola, in case you were curious).

After an hour, lunch was over, the dough had risen quite a bit, and I wanted to get back to my book. I spent 10 minutes in splitting the paste in four smaller balls, whacking them in the refrigerator for another two-three hours of rising in a cold temperature. Roughly 2.5 hours before dinner, I took a very short break from Hogwarts tales, taking the dough out from the fridge for the final two hours of maturation (summing it up, that is 12-16 hours of pre-fermentation, one hour of initial rising, three hours in the fridge and the final two back to the kneading board: makes 18 to 22 hours overall, which is quite a bit but still much less than it takes for a proper Polijuice potion). The final two hours were all I needed to finish reading the book and finding out what Harry Potter was to be about: the oven was pre-heated to maximum temp, and it was time to shape the balls of dough into pizzas. This is incredibly easy if the paste has been done properly: a couple of slaps, a bit of cool-looking juggling, absolutely no rolling pin (that’s a Unforgivable Curse in pizza land), and the dish-shaped paste is ready to land in a proper pan which needs nothing else than a sprinkle of flour on the bottom to avoid sticking. Filling is next: my personal choice for home-made pizza is very very simple, just a bit of tomato sauce (lightly seasoned with some olive oil, salt, pepper, and origano) and enough mozzarella cheese to coarsely blanket the surface. A drizzle of olive oil, a couple of basil leaves, and it’s time to whack everything in the oven. 15 minutes will be more than enough in my not so powerful oven to end up with a nice thin pizza with a thick crust (as it should be), which makes for a rewarding sunday dinner. I just wish I had Butterbeer to go with it.

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.

The Sunday post: layers, layers, layers…

Lasagne are to many Italians the ultimate comfort food, bringing distant memories of grandmas layering together thin hand-made pasta, slowly cooked meat ragout, white sauce and cheese to come up with a work of art both horribly hot and incredibly good.

As many Italian dishes, there is nothing hard in making lasagne, apart from some dedication and a lot of patience: a proper meat sauce needs no less than 4-5 hours on the stove, and that’s only part of the story as home-made pasta and white sauce will take their toll as well. The good news is the reward you get for the effort: apart from being great food in itself, lasagne are extremely flexible for a dinner with friends, as you can get everything ready in advance and whack it in the oven while having a chat over some wine. Unlike almost every pasta, if you’re so lucky to have any leftovers, you can freeze and reheat them in the busy days and, finally, if you like optimization like I do, when you cook the meat sauce you can make hefty quantities of it and store it for some good “pasta bolognaise” (by the way, you might want to know that no Italian will ever name what we call “pasta al ragù” as “bolognaise”: personally, I would run away from any Italian restaurant using that horrible term, but then again I’d run away from every Italian restaurant abroad so you might not want to quote me on that).

On to the recipe: the key in making good lasagne is the meat sauce, which is really not difficult to make once get to grips with the time it will take for the sauce to slowly simmer. As it might get as long as six hours, don’t choose a busy day to cook this kind of stuff; on the other hand, know that the hard work will be done in 30-45 minutes, and all you need for the remaining five hours or so is a casual eye to avoid burning, while your house fills up with flavours and you’re reading a book or surfing the Net. Get everything ready first: if you want to cook a lot of sauce, good for two or three meals, grab 600g of minced beef (assuming you trust your butcher, that is, or mince it yourself as I do), 100g of pancetta or lard in very small cubes and no less than 1.5kg of ripe tomatoes.

Start with tomatoes first: since it’s winter, and we don’t get nice small and sweet tomatoes, some work is in order to get rid of some acidity. Get a pan with boiling water and a bowl with cold/iced water, cut a cross over the tomatoes, and poach them in the boiling water for no more than a minute. Throw them in the cold water and watch the skin fall apart. Peel the tomatoes, cut them in four and throw the seeds away. Sprinkle some salt on the clean tomato quarters and put them in a drainer for twenty minutes. You will be amazed to see how much water the tomatoes will lose: know that this passage is paramount for a proper tomato sauce, unless we’re talking about fresh small cherry tomatoes coming straight from the garden.

While the tomatoes are draining, put a pan on the fire and prepare some soffritto (you can read here how to cook it, use a large onion, a carrot, a stalk of celery and a touch of garlic), unless you happen to have some frozen stuff which will shave some time from your cooking day: once it’s ready, take it away, roughly clean the pan, pour no less than three spoonfuls of olive oil on high heat and throw the minced meat/pancetta in. Let everything toast and brown, add the soffritto back with a couple of glasses of white wine which will need to fully evaporate (unless you use the de-alcoholyizing trick we’ve been trough before) and finally let the drained tomatoes join the pan, together with a nice cup of beef stock. Let everything get to the boiling point, then lower the fire to the minimum possible heat and grab that book as it’s now time to wait. Don’t – ever – put a lid on. Stop by the pan every twenty minutes or so for a good stir and, after a couple of hours, add a good glass of milk as the perfect finishing touch to your meat sauce, which will be ready as soon as every single drop of water will be evaporated. Don’t rush, take your time, and the reward will be excellent.

A couple of hours before the meat sauce is ready, it’s time to think about pasta: make a dough with 400g of white flour, four eggs and a good pinch of salt, then use the rolling pin or a pasta machine to end up with thin, large, squares which if at all possible should be the size as the pan they’ll be ending up in a short while (this pasta shape is what we call lasagne, by the way). Let the pasta sit for a while, and bring some salted water to boil. While you wait for the water to heat, get on with the white sauce, using 60g of butter and a good spoonful of white flour to make some roux, then add roughly a liter of milk and keep on stirring until it thickens (don’t let it boil!), seasoning with some salt and pepper to taste. Grate a good quantity of parmesan cheese (no less than four-five handfuls) and get ready for the assembly phase.

Get a bowl with cold water and bring it near the stove. Add a drizzle of oil to the boiling water, and poach no more than two lasagne at the same time, or they will horribly stick together no matter the oil. Let them cook for a little more than a minute, then throw the lasagne in the cold water bowl to stop them from overcooking. Grab an oven pan and make a first lasagne layer on the bottom. Add a spoonful of meat sauce, a spoonful of white sauce and a good sprinkle of grated parmesan, then move on to the next layer repeating the poach/cool/arrange/season drill until you run out of pan space or lasagne. Finish your pan with the two sauces and a very generous handful of parmesan which will melt and form a great crust. Some 30 minutes before you want to eat, turn the oven on to 180°C and whack everything in. Finish with some grill and warn your friends before heating, as the lasagne will be as hot as a lava, but also as good as food can be.

The Sunday post: schweinshaxe

This weekend has been pretty busy doing other stuff, with little time left for cooking. Given we are going through an unusually short winter, with high temps, bears waking up from their winter sleep and creepy predictions about desertification of Southern Europe in a few years, I guess it was time for some winter food before flowers start blooming and the Sunday posts turns into some mangos and papayas recipe book. What’s best than a good German-reminiscent pork hock properly roasted from a winter food perspective? This is far from the proper Bavarian recipe, but it tastes great nevertheless, and it’s really easy to do, with just a few tricks to remember.

I start off finely mincing some flavours: rosemary and garlic are absolutely compulsory, but the extra kick I love to add to pork is ginger: it might not be that traditional, but it really add that je ne sais quoi that makes the difference. Add some salt and pepper, pierce a few holes into the meat (which, of course, has been taken from the fridge no less than an hour before starting off), and start rubbing it vigorously. Pre-heat the oven to 180C, and grab a pan large enough to comfortably sit the hock. Heat a spoonful of oil and drop the meat into the pan, letting it seal all over (I’ll say it again: all over means throughout the meat, which has no less than six sides. Sealing just two or four makes the flavour find other ways to escape). When the meat is slightly roasted, add a good glass of dry white wine, beware the flame and let the alcohol vaporize. Throw everything into a roasting pan and cover it, either with tin foil or (even better) with wax paper soaked in water: you need this to let the steam help the cooking process.

After 15 minutes, it’s time to deal with roasted potatoes. Get a pot with some salted water on the stove. Cut a few potatoes in small chunks and, when the water is boiling, throw them in. Let them boil for five minutes and drain the water: this will soften your potatoes and make the beast roasted spuds money can buy. The whole operation will take almost 30 minutes, if you’re faster slow everything down, as you need to add potatoes to the roasting pan exactly 45 minutes after the hock gets into the oven. Take the roasting pan out, and quickly add the potatoes, mixing them with the sauce lying in the bottom of the pan. If there isn’t enough sauce, feel free to add some hot stock. If you’ve been using wax paper, soak it again in water before covering the pan again. Throw everything back into the oven, and let it cook for another 30 minutes. Take the tin foil/wax paper cover off, and finish up cooking with another 15-20 minutes.

Take the pork hock out of the oven, and wrap it in tin foil for no less than ten minutes before serving: this way the meat juices will flow back where they belong, making the dish taste even better. Serve on hot plates, as it takes a while to carve the hefty piece of meat, and you don’t want to eat cold stuff. If you feel more German than me, apple sauce and sauerkraut are a perfect match.

The (late) Sunday post: New Year’s Eve

This is a belated post, I know: I needed some time to recover after the holidays, and I tried to stay away from the computer. This is also somewhat a special post: Sunday was New Year’s Eve here, and I managed to spend quite a lot of time in the kitchen, trying to come out with a special treat to say goodbye to 2006. Since it would take a book to write about everything I did, something I don’t have time to write and my readers definitely don’t want to read, you will have to cope with short summaries and a few pictures. I promise I will return to full recipes in a short while. Without further ado, then, here we go with a wrap-up of what a typical Italian New Year’s Eve dinner looks like.

We started off with some appetizers, namely Parma ham, lard and salmon on canapés. Smoked salmon has become a tradition over here, and this was nothing fancy to prepare, except for the home-made bread which was mixed with nuts and olives. Nice to see, easy to do and good to eat, while having a chat and waiting for the first course. The only trick to note is about getting the right temperature for the lightly toasted bread to allow lard to slightly melt: cold lard is nice but requires some marinating in oil and chili to perform at its best, while melted lard tastes too greasy and slimey even for me.

Pasta was the special deal for the night, and it required quite some work: we wanted to have three different kinds of filled pasta, and we figured out that it would have been better to make large quantities of each, in order to fill our freezer up and get a few dinners for free. It took us no less than 2kg of flours and 16 eggs to come up with the amount of dough we needed, then it was time to roll it into thin layers, prepare the filling and assemble the whole thing. Quite a hard work, but definitely worth the effort, as we finished up with a nice layout of:

  • tortellini, the most traditional filled pasta you can eat during the Holiday Season. This belly-button shaped pasta is usually filled with Parma ham and Parmesan cheese, but we like to add some plain ham and mortadella (a large, lightly smokey italian sausage) to the mix, to soften it up. Tortellini require some skill in properly revolving pasta around the filling, something which is as easy to show as hard to write, but the real problem comes with the filling: Parma ham doesn’t like the food processor at all (it becomes stringy), and the only alternative if you don’t have a meat grinder lying around is working your way with a knife and a lot of patience;
  • pansotti, straight from my homeland: triangle shaped pasta filled with vegetables and ricotta filling (I know, my fellow countrymen: I shouldn’t use ricotta, but then again there is no prescinseua in Milano…), seasoned with the traditional walnut sauce made with mortar-crushed walnuts, milk soaked bread, some garlic, olive oil and parmesan cheese;
  • ravioli, a traditionally-shaped pasta cut in squares, which is usually filled with meat or vegetables. We opted for an unusual yet great filling (probably this was the best pasta we had): minced roast pork (a fortunate leftover!), crushed nuts and a mashed potato to tie everything together. All this was seasoned with sage-flavored beurre-noisette and the obligatory sprinkle of Parmesan cheese.

We had no less than two main courses after all this. Actually it was slightly more than a bite, as we were pretty much filled up with pasta, but I wanted to try galantina, something deemed very difficult to cook, and we couldn’t do without some cotechino with lentils, as we will see in a minute.

Chicken galantina is (surprise!) a traditional festive dish for the Holiday season, and it requires some work and a bit of luck. Our version starts with a carved chicken breast, laid out on some cellophane foil and slightly beaten/rolled to form a layer of meat. This is the external part of a roll, which is filled with finely minced veal, ham, mortadella, a couple of beaten eggs, some Parma ham thick strips (which become cubes when sliced) and a few pistacchios (the more the merrier, according to my wife). The tricky bit is understanding the right quantity of filling, as it will grow during cooking, and possibly make the whole roll explode. We took our bet, and started rolling the chicken breast using the cellophane foil to help us out, with a technique that reminds of sushi rolls. We wrapped the whole thing in cellophane and let it rest for a while, then took the cellophane off to firmly roll everything in a 100% cotton kitchen towel, which we tied at both ends using some kitchen string (warning: it has to be tight).

I used the ham and meat leftovers, together with onion, carrot, celery and parsley, to make a light stock, in which we poached our chicken roll. A bit more than an hour, at simmering heat, and the roll was ready to be squeezed between two plates with some considerable weight on top (this helps expelling the liquid and consolidate the filling), with no less than 3-4 hours ahead to rest and cool down. Meanwhile the stock is filtered twice, then brought back to boil for five minutes with a couple of egg whites slightly whisked: the egg whites perform some magic and grab all the dirty bits from the stock, without affecting the flavour, and it’s enough to remove the egg white chunks using a sieve to obtain some crystal clear liquid which is perfect, with some de-alcoholyzed white wine and a couple of agar-agar sheets, to provide the jelly to top off the sliced chicken roll. A few hours in the fridge, and the galantina is ready for your eating pleasure!

The second, and final, main course was cotechino with lentils: we really couldn’t take it anymore, but during New Year’s Eve you’re supposed to have lentils, as they bring good luck and money, so we indulged. Cotechino is a typical raw sausage of pork which requires a painful long cooking: the sausage needs to be soaked in cold water for no less than ten hours, then pierced with a wooden stick to let some fat out, and finally slowly cooked for no less than 4-5 hours. The alternative is buying a pre-cooked version which requires just some heating, but since it just tastes like crap, I went for the real thing and let the whole thing cook for the whole afternoon (and believe me, it tastes great but smells awful in the early cooking stages). Lentils were the easy stuff, even though using the dried version we needed to soak them as well for a few hours: a touch of soffritto, some finely diced pancetta, a couple of tomatoes, a cup of stock and an hour simmering on the stove was enough to provide the best lentil stew I ever did. Usually I can’t stand lentils, but I must confess I really enjoyed them this time, and the leftover on New Year’s Day was even better.

Time to celebrate, finally! The table shows the typical panettone, a dessert bread made with raisins and citron. I might be so brave to try and bake one at home next year, but since it requires a lot of dedication, a full three days’ work and a great oven, we usually buy it and, to add some kick, we cover it with some butter, cocoa and sugar glaze which tastes just wonderful. My wife is a purist, but I like my panettone with some good old custard made with eggs, cream, milk, vanilla, sugar and a lot of patience. Some good italian prosecco wine (no french Champagne over here), and the obligatory twelve grapes where the perfect finish for our New Year’s Eve feast!

The Sunday post: down the rabbit hole

I guess this is going to be a controversial post: every time I mention rabbit cooking, quite a few people look horrified and start yelling “do you really eat THAT?”. I guess it’s a cultural issue: rabbits are pets in some countries, and it might sound weird to eat them. The idea of eating a small fluffy thingie might seem gruesome, but then again last time I was confronted on the subject, a rack of lamb was sitting in front of us, so to each its own I guess…

Anyway: rabbit is a core component in the diet of my homeland. In Liguria and Piemonte (that’s where my heritage comes from) every farmer has rabbits, and there is a ton and a half of recipes to cook what can be a very nice, healthy and tasty piece of meat. This week end I fancied a nice variation on possibly the most traditional rabbit stew I used to have since I was a small child: rabbit with olives and pine-nuts, somewhat Mediterranean style. This dish is usually prepared by cutting the rabbit in large chunks, stewing it with wine and various stuff, then use the sauce for pasta and serve the meat as a main course: what I like to do is merge the two, mincing the rabbit into a ragout and providing a richer sauce for a single main course. All this with a twist, of course. This recipe can be reused for any kind of stewed meat the Ligurian way: start off with a soffritto, add meat, wine, possibly some tomatoes, and let it simmer. Throw olives and pinenuts some 20-30 minutes before cooking completes, and you’re set. Then again, devil is in the details, as we’ll see in a minute.

Since I’ve been mentioning soffritto a number of times already, it’s time to bite the bullet and see how it is done, as it’s easy enough to prepare in advance and, when done properly, can really make a difference. First of all, there are roughly three kinds of soffritto, depending on ingredients: onion only, onion, carrots and celery (the actual “italian soffritto”) and pancetta soffritto, which is italian soffritto plus some good pig fat. Don’t get carried away by the name, as most italians do: soffritto literally means “sub-fried”, but forget about frying altogether, as soffritto is really a stew of finely chopped vegetables. The vast majority of people tends to somewhat chop some onion, throw it in hot olive oil and let it burn for a couple of minutes, but that’s incredibly wrong. Soffritto needs two things: a good cutting attitude, as you’ll be done with your knife just before your vegetables turn into a paste, and a lot of time.

Once you’re done cutting, add a small bit of oil to a pan and immediately (cold pan, that is) throw the vegetables in. Use the smallest flame your kitchen can handle (some say that soffritto should be cooked over a candle) and wait. Stir from time to time and have a small quantity of vegetable stock (or water) boiling in a small pan aside: if the temperature gets too high, you want to add a spoonful or two to prevent burning. Then, again, use your patience: good soffritto can take even 45 minutes to cook (slow heat, remember?). You know that it’s ready when onions are transparents and vegetables are soft enough to be mashed with a slight pressure of a fork. Now the good news: once it’s ready, it will last a week in the fridge or months in the freezer. Usually I cook one full kilo of onions at a time (which require lots of tears), then I freeze them splitting it in spoonfuls as the typical portion I’m going to use later on (the ice cube mold works just fine, for the record).

As I did my homework correctly, all I had to do today was defrosting a portion of soffritto and taking the rabbit from the fridge a couple of hours before (I can’t stress it enough: meat has to be at room temperature). Also, since I wanted a ragout, I carefully separated the meat from the bones using a sharp knife. This doesn’t mean I’m throwing bones away: you should know by now that I don’t like wasting flavour: the biggest bones (legs, mostly) can still go in the pan, while the smallest ones, which would be difficult to separate once the meat is ready, were added to a small quantity of vegetable stock which I prepared in advance and which I was keeping on a low heat for later use.

The most important thing to remember when cooking rabbit is that we’re talking about lean meat, with little to no fat. Lean stuff is fine but it requires careful cooking to avoid the cardboard effect: usually, this means adding some fat to the cooking pot, and I was lucky enough to have a nice piece of Colonnata lard from our recent leisure trip to Tuscany (by the way, that trip was the reason for missing the Sunday post last week: it was good indeed to receive so many inquiries from readers, but just remember that these post happen only if I’m actually cooking something). If you can’t find lard, use pancetta. If you can’t use pancetta and have a really good and fatty bacon lying around, go for it. In any case, do add some fat or your meat will taste like shredded newspaper. I finely (finely! as it has to melt completely) chopped a good slice of lard and I added it to the pan with the soffritto over very slow heat, to have the soffritto and lard flavour melt. No need for oil, as soffritto already got its share, and lard was providing more than enough fat for the rabbit.

Meanwhile, I poured two glasses of white dry wine in a small pot. Wine is everywhere in italian cooking, but you have to make sure that the alcohol disappears in the shortest possible time, or your food will be bitter. This is why, especially when I’m using large quantities of wine I’m fond of the nice “de-alcoholyizing” trick, which requires boiling the wine separately, flaming it as soon as it starts bubbling (use a lighter, but pay attention, as the flame can be pretty high even if not extremely hot). When the flame goes off, the wine can be used safely and will add just flavour, not bitterness, to your dish.

Once the lard was melted in the soffritto, I took everything off the pan, as I needed to seal the rabbit meat at high temperature (which would burn the soffritto and waste my efforts). The pan was still greasy, of course, so I didn’t need any additional fat. A couple of minutes per each side of the meat chunks were more than enough to seal flavour, then it was time to add the soffritto back it together with wine, some rosemary, a couple of bay leaves (always break them in half as that will triple the flavour!) and, a couple of minutes later, half a cup of the (strained) vegetable stock I mentioned above and two-three ripe tomatoes, peeled, de-seeded and cubed. Lid on, fire to medium-low, and Bob’s your uncle. Some twenty minutes later the time was right to add some pine nuts (slightly toasted to a very low heat) and a handful of olives. Olives matter: you really should look for Taggiasche, even though that might not be easy. The quest is worth the effort, though, as these Ligurian olives are really a different breed. If you’re the accomodating kind, use the best black olive you can get.

Fifty minutes were more than enough for my rabbit to cook. I carefully took every bone out, and finely minced the remaining meat to a ragout. Some work with eggs, flour and a rolling-pin produced a nice thin layer of pasta, which I rolled and cut into very small noodles (they’re called “Tajarin” in Piemonte). A large pan of salted boiling water received the pasta which in two minutes later, was ready for a light sautée in the saucepan together with the tagout. A sprinkle of cheese and, wow, it just feels like grandma’s!

The Sunday post: of slicing and dicing

A bowl full of vegetables

Sometimes cooking is about planning, especially when we have a hectic time coming. All work and no play, makes Gianugo an unhealthy guy: we’re coming home late on a regular basis, and usually all we can think about is either ordering a pizza or hack a quick pasta with whatever we can find in the fridge.

We figured out this week-end would have been a good chance to get some head start for future healthy dinners: the italian tradition is full of variants of what we call “minestrone”, which can be roughly translated as “the big soup”. A plethora of recipes which include different ingredients and different approaches to cooking, yet share something in common: vegetables, vegetables, vegetables. Minestrone is basically a free for all, the mantra is somewhat along the lines of “if it’s green, it gets in”: there is no set recipe, it really depends on seasonal availability, but variety is key as you want to add as many kind of mixed vegetable to get different flavours and a lot of healthy stuff.

Minestrone has a downside: it needs small quantities of a lot of vegetables, which then take forever to wash, clean and dice to perfection. The process is quite long and somewhat boring, and it doesn’t quite fit in the non-weekend routine. Luckily enough we have refrigerators nowadays, and vegetables can stand freezing just fine: this means that from time to time we tale over the vegetable department of our grocery store, grab large quantities of ingredients and devote to a slicing and dicing day, which produces a hefty quantity of good stuff we can store in the freezer then pop in a pan and have in our dishes one hour afterwards.

Given the different variants I mentioned before, what we’re after is building a cooking base as fresh vegetables rather than cubes, then adjust it with some fresh stuff according to what we want to eat. The shopping list, again, depends on the season and the grocery store availability, but usually we start with a few varieties of green stuff (spinach, swiss chard, different kinds of cabbage: the more the merrier), then add flavour with celery, leek and onion, and top it with some chunky stuff such as green beans, peppers, cauliflower, broccoli, tomato, courgette and aubergine. All this has to be carefully washed, cleaned and finely diced: the key is merging flavours, and a spoonful of minestrone should contain at least 3-4 different veggies.

All this vegetable cleaning produce a lot of leftover, as I don’t want fibrous matter in the finished product. This means a lot of stuff would be potentially wasted, as I need to carefully separate leaves from stems, use just the gems from cauliflower and broccoli, take away both ends from the green beans, peel peppers and tomatoes and so on. Throwing that stuff away is stupid, as there is a whole lot of flavour which can be squeezed. While I’m cleaning the vegetables, then, I throw the parts that wouldn’t fit in my base in a large pot, add cold water and let it simmer for an hour or so, adding a sprinkle of salt at the very end: the filtered result is an excellent vegetable stock which can be used for a nice risotto, as a base for a vegetable soup or as a cooking aid for basically everything that doesn’t need strong meat stock. We usually freeze it in 1lt and 1/2lt bags, saving a great deal of flavour and time for nice future dishes.

The final result is a few bowls of mixed diced matter: it’s time to split it into freezer bags (consider 5-600g per bag) and store it. It lasts no less than a couple of months, and makes an excellent head start for the soup of choice. All we need is some fresh ingredients that wouldn’t stand freezing very well: carrots and potatoes for sure, but you might add mushrooms, beans, chickpeas or lentils as well, according to your taste. The cooking process is straightforward, as all you need is throwing the (frozen) stuff together with the fresh ingredients in a large pan with 3 liters of cold water (let me stress it: it has to be cold water, as this will both ensure brighter colours and extract most of the flavour from the vegetables), then let it simmer for an hour or so. Halfway through, you might want to take some of the potatoes out, squash them with a fork and pour the mash back in: this will help thickening the liquid, producing a nice and creamy soup. If you want to add tin beans instead than the real stuff, wait until the last five minutes or so, as they’re already cooked. You might also want to throw some small pasta in (look for “ditalini” at a good grocery store. If you can’t find it, use the smallest format you can get), or even some rice: make sure you don’t overcook it, though, as minestrone needs to rest for a good 10-15 minutes before dishing it out. Pour the final result in a bowl, add some parmesan cheese, a teaspoon of good olive oil and possibly some pepper, and you have an healthy and tasty dinner in little to no time.

Some variants now, to prove how flexible this recipe can be:

  • if you want some extra flavour, finely chop some onion, celery and carrot to make a soffritto, let it stew with some olive oil and a very low heat, then add vegetables and water;
  • for the extra kick, add some bacon or pancetta to your soffritto;
  • don’t throw away those nice parmesan crusts: scrape the surface, rinse, cut in small cubes and add it 30 minutes after the water is simmering, they will taste delicious!
  • add a spoonful of pesto when you dish out the minestrone (avoid the soffritto step if you want to stick to the tradition of “minestrone alla genovese”);
  • mix the minestrone with a hand blender (not exactly my cup of tea, but kids tend to like it more than the chunky stuff);
  • use bread crouton instead than pasta.

Finally, consider an alternative for the day you’re wiil devote to dicing stuff : after a few hours at the cutting table, the last thing you want is eat minestrone for dinner. A good steak can be a great alternative, or use the vegetable stock to cook a great risotto. Save the vegetables for the busy days, and you’ll have a perfect dinner for those cold and damp times when you need some comfort food.

The Sunday post: England meets Italy

Sometimes creativity needs a little help from the supermarket. I had a few ideas for this weekend, yet I wasn’t quite convinced: I decided to let the grocery store suggest what I should cook, given available ingredients and special offers. I was lucky enough to find a very nice and perfectly sized chunk of meat which screamed for some roast beef, looking like a great main course to marry with golden potatoes and grilled polenta.

Polenta should deserve a separate post: for brevity’s sake I’ll have Wikipedia tell you the whole story about it. Suffice to say that it takes so much time and effort to cook it that you really want to do big portions, and use the leftover as a side order for the next day (it will taste even better, by the way): it’s great with cheese, meat, fish and basically everything you can eat, as long as you can count on some sauce. Roast beef isn’t that great for sauce, so I decided to go for a small “fusion” experiment, marrying the best English practices with some Italian stuff that would end up with some nice smooth juice to glaze the meat and eat with polenta.

Everyone can cook roast beef: get a chunk of meat, whack it in the oven, hope for the best. If you really want to impress your friends with some nice juicy meat, a few hints might help you perform the hat trick. Ingredients first: what you’re looking for is a nice chunk of meat, properly sized (everything less than 1Kg is a a good steak, not something to roast), and with a decent amount of grease. Grease is what makes the difference, what we’re trying to avoid here is dry meat, so you want some good, white grease layer on top (feel free to shrink it to 1/2 cm, but keep in mind how that’s the absolute minimum). Your meat should also look like marble: an evenly red meat is OK but tends to be dry, whereas some nice and thin grease veins are your best bet towards a great roast.

Once you have the proper chunk of meat, get ready in advance: you really (and I mean really) want to take it out from the fridge no less than two-three hours before you start cooking. Your meat should be at room temperature, or a couple of hours later you’ll be going to slice something that’s much better for your shoes than for your stomach. Trust me, this is possibly the most important suggestion I can make when cooking beef, or any kind of meat or fish for that matter.

It’s now time to get all the ingredient for our “italian” sauce ready. Pre-heat the oven to 180°C. Finely chop (you bought that ceramic knife, didn’t you?) one carrot, some celery and a shallot. Carrot, celery and onion are the foundation of italian cooking: a lot of italian dish start with what we call soffritto (Wikipedia to the rescue, again): using shallot instead than onion is a very nice and dirty trick, as shallot have that special something you don’t want to miss. Ask any professional chef: it will take a few drinks, but eventually he might confess that his kitchen heavily depends on shallots and butter.

Grab now a garlic clove, unpeeled, and throw it with the chopped veggies, a spoon of olive oil, a glass of white wine, some rosemary leaves, salt and pepper into a roasting pan which is large enough to accommodate your chunk of meat yet small enough to leave roughly 1/2 cm of the sauce mix on the bottom. Grab a fairly sized potato, peel it and slice it into two or three long chunks no less than 1cm high (you’ll see why in a minute), add it to the sauce and whack everything in the oven.

Beef’s turn, now: first think we want to do is treat it with a massage, in order to soften the meat and add some flavour. What you need here is a good teaspoon of rock salt, some pepper and, possibly, some english mustard powder. If you can’t find it, a spoonful of french Dijon mustard, possibly whole-grain, is the closest thing you can get, but you’ll be missing something. Since we’re doing an Italian version of the British long-time fav, we’ll use some olive oil as well. Don’t be scared of getting your hands dirty: squash the mix through the meat, and massage it thoroughly. You’ll end up with a somewhat greasy chunk of beef, which is ready for the next step.

Grab a frying pan now (yeah, I know, I hate dish washing as well), and heat it over a strong flame. When it’s painfully hot, throw the meat in the pan (no need for extra grease, as we’ve been using olive oil for our previous massage), and let it seal for a couple of minutes per side. Some notes here: first of all, this is a crucial step, if you fail to seal the meat properly, the flavour will vanish in no time flat. As a consequence, try to remember that your chunk of meat vaguely resembles a cube, which means it has six sides, not just two. You want to seal each and everyone of them, which incidentally means you will have to hold your meat in some funky position over the pan: get ready for some blisters, unless you use long tongs to hold the beef over the pan. Don’t even try to use a fork or to pinch your meat in any way, unless you want to burn in hell for the capital sin of throwing flavour away.

We’re ready to hit the oven now. Take the roasting pan out and – quickly – arrange the potato strips you’ve been cutting before so that the meat gets to rest on them. You don’t want the meat to make direct contact with the sauce, as this is likely to cause sogginess: resting your beef chunk over two or three potato strip is the best compromise, as meat juices will flow anyway to the sauce, while your meat will happily absorb vapor from the sauce and roast evenly, even on the bottom side. Slap the pan back in the oven, and dedicate yourself to scraping the char bits from the frying pan. Pour half a glass of white wine in the pan to help you, and make sure you get all the tasty charred lumps, which you will then pour in the oven over the meat. Don’t wash the frying pan just yet, we’ll need it in a while.

Get a good watch, now, and consider you will need 35 to 45 minutes for 1Kg of meat to cook evenly: time is for rare to medium cooking, as I consider “well done meat” as the utmost example of oxymoron ever. Be warned: if I’ll ever be elected to any parliament chair, I promise I will propose to outlaw meat extermination via extreme cooking. If you can’t stand pink meat, consider a vegetarian diet. Good timing also requires a sheer amount of trust in your oven thermometer, which is like trusting women about their age: there is no substitute for direct knowledge, or trial and error, so just wait and see.

The next (and final!) step involves a food processor, a sieve and some tin foil. First of all, don’t be impatient: after 35 to 45 minutes, your meat is cooked but it’s not quite ready. During the cooking process, meat juices tend to move outwards from the center, concentrating on the outer edge of the meat which is hotter: what you want to do is let your beef cool down a bit, which will allow juices (and flavours) to return to their original position. If you cut your meat too early, the process will be incomplete, and you will see a clear separation between cooked meat on the edges and raw stuff on the center, with lots of juices getting lost on the carving board: you know you did your homework well when slices are coloured with an even gradient going from light brown to pink.

Take the meat out of the oven, grab a good chunk of tin foil, wrap it around the meat and wait for no less than 15 minutes, which is plenty of time to prepare the sauce with the juice lying at the bottom of your pan: throw the potato chunks away, pour the rest in a food processor and mix. Now grab the frying pan which should still be lying around, and use it to adjust thickness of the resulting sauce: if it’s too thick, let it simmer reduce a bit, if it’s too dry, add some white whine and let the alcohol evaporate. If you’re not on a perpetual and apparently useless diet as I do, add some butter and whisk. Since carrots and shallots will still be a bit uncooked (this is fully expected), you need to sieve the sauce through, which will result in a very smooth and silky liquid, great for your meat and vegetables. Open the tin foil now, and carve the meat in thick slices (around 1/2 cm): cold roast beef is great for sandwiches and salad, and should be as thin as possible, but hot stuff requires hefty portions. Use, if possible, hot plates for serving, add the side dish of choice, glaze with sauce and rejoice, as your efforts will be applauded by a cheering audience.

The Sunday post, al pesto

Trenette al pestoOK, I’ll be cheating this week. Twice. First of all, this Sunday post is about something we had yesterday. This week has been horribly packed, and given Sourcesense is running its very first public venue in two days from now, the best way to think of me at the moment is a sleepless caffeine-filled body bag, rushing around as an hypnotized muppet in his quest to have everything (including our new website, but that will lead to many other posts) set up perfectly for tuesday. Knowing in advance I’d have little or no time on sunday, this post has been cooking (pun intented) throughout the week, the finishing touch being added this morning, before I delve into slides again. Read on for the next cheating.

Given I had little to no time for serious stuff, I decided to settle for an old time favourite: pesto. Some of you might remind that I was born and raised in a small town near Genova, which means pesto is to me the mother of all dishes, probably the first real food I ate after my mom’s milk, and close to being a religion. Pesto is faily easy, and it’s all about ingredients: grab the right stuff, put it in a mortar, start squashing and presto!, you have pesto. OK, the mortar bit isn’t quite a piece of cake, but it really makes a difference. You can use a food processor, but you have to be extremely careful, as we’ll see in a minute.

The whole deal with pesto is being able to preserve the flavour of its main ingredient. Ligurians consider basil a gift of God, pure green gold which needs to be carefully selected and processed. Selection is key: real pesto is done using basil coming from Prà, a very small piece of land near Genova which recently was awarded a food quality certification. There is actually a slim chance you will be able to find the real thing in your grocery store, if you have to settle for less keep in mind these few criteria:

  • you want young basil, with small leaves. This is not a grown-up game: if all you can get is something that closely resembles a banana leaf in size, do settle for something else such as a basil-flavoured tomato sauce: that stuff just won’t do for pesto, as it’s far too hard to squash, and most of the kick is gone;
  • you want to smell it, and it has to smell like – well – basil. Grab a leaf, shred it with your hands, and smell it: what you want to avoid is even the single distant memory of mint. Basil is a stupid guy, and as we like to say, easy to fall in love with mint. It’s enough to have a single mint leaf close to your basil plant to ruin everything. To be safe, I’d even avoid mint-flavoured chewing gum and candies while dealing with basil. This is the worst thing that might happen to your pesto, as you’d end up with a mint sauce instead than what you intended to eat;
  • stay away from variants such as red or black basil. Making pesto with that stuff is an abomination you don’t want to tell me about.

As if selecting the right stuff wasn’t hard enough, processing basil to make pesto can be a nightmare. You have to keep in mind is how young basil is afraid of two things: metal, and heat. Cut basil with a steel knife, and you’ll end up with hay. Heat basil up, and all you’ll get is a dark tasteless mash. Combine steel blades turning at high speed generating attrition and heat, and you end up with the perfect description of a food processor, and a perfect reason to stay away from it. Here goes something to remember: the darker the basil becomes when processed, the tasteless it gets. You really want to preserve bright green color, as that will mean your job was excellent.

All this said, we’re back to our kitchen table, which will have a few ingredients lined up. Basil, of course (just leaves, say 30-50 of them), 1-2 garlic cloves which have been cut in two and cleaned up from the inside gem, a handful of pine nuts gently toasted to enhance flavour, a generous handful each of pecorino and parmesan cheese, and olive oil. If you’re brave enough to use a marble mortar with a wooden pestel, start squashing the garlic, then start adding basil leaves with some grains of rock salt, which will help you during the shredding process.

As soon as basil enters the mortar, no squashing is allowed anymore: you need to gently roll the pestel against the mortar walls, shredding the leaves as you go. As soon as basil juice starts to form in the bottom of the mortar it’s time add and crush the pine nuts, then cheese goes in. By now, hopefully, the mortar will have a bright green paste circling around the walls, and this is when half a glass of olive oil (you want a ligurian one, gentle in flavour) enters the picture, drop by drop. Taste, adjust seasoning and rejoice: you have a great pesto, and an aching arm which will remind you for days of what pesto (whose literal translation is “smashed”) really means.

As most of you don’t have any religious commitment to pesto, you’re allowed to the food processor shortcut, which literally means “toss everything in the bowl at once and fire it up”. What I can do to spare your poor basil and pesto from a very unhappy ending is a word of advice: use the maximum speed your blender can handle, in order to minimise the time your leaves touch the blades, work fast and, if you can, chill the bowl beforehand, putting it in your freezer for a couple of hours (pesto then becomes a rush against time, but it can be fun).

Pesto can be used in a number of ways, but the most traditional (and, by far, preferred) way of consuming it is with pasta. You have two choices, really: either “trofie”, which is a typical fresh pasta nearly impossible to find outside Liguria, or “trenette”, which is a kind of flat long pasta, similar to linguine. I will forgive you for using linguine if you can’t find trenette, but eternal damnation is waiting for you if you give up to spaghetti. If you want the stick to tradition and get the extra kick (and believe me, you do), you should go for the “pesto avvantaggiato” (which I translate quite liberally and geeky as “pesto++”): all it takes is one medium-sized potato sliced in 0.5cm cubes, and a good handful of green beans, chopped in 4cm chunks. The vegetables have to cook in the same pan you’ll be cooking pasta in, and you have to be careful about timing. Just know potatoes and beans require 10 minutes of cooking, read the cooking time for pasta, taking no less than two minutes off, and adjust cooking times accordingly: if your pasta requires 12 minutes, you take two off and end up with 10, meaning you can throw everything together. If you need just 8 minutes for pasta, throw the veggies, wait for two minutes then add pasta in. Easy, huh?

Unfortunately, we have a problem now (and a general advice): the proper way of cooking pasta requires finishing it up in a sautée pan. Pasta, once drained, is still thirsty, and will happily keep on absorbing liquids: if you just add the sauce and dish the result out, by the time it gets to the table your precious pasta will be either soggy or dry. The finishing touch in the pan, which seals the pasta and provides an excellent way of mixing it with the sauce, usually involves a) saving a cup of water from the boiling pot, b) throwing sauce, pasta and some water in the sautée pan and c) “stir fry” for a couple of minutes over high heat, slowly adding cooking water should it dry out. This excellent and easy technique, unfortunately, cannot be applied to pesto for two reasons: basil, as we know by now, is scared of heat, pesto is a cold sauce and should be used in warm environments at most. Also, pesto contains a lot of cheese which can’t stand direct heat as well without getting bitter in taste and chewy in texture.

There are a few solutions here, and everyone fiercely defends his. You can just forget about the stir fry part and throw pesto and pasta in a bowl, but in my opinion this is a recipe for sogginess. You can forget about temperature and stir fry using a very vigorous approach to avoid cheese from sticking, but I think this is just plain pesto murder. My compromise: grab a cup of water from the boiling pasta, add a spoonful of olive oil and mix. Throw the liquid in the frying pan together with pasta and perform the sautée bit. That will seal the pasta using harmless stuff such as oil and water, finishing it up perfectly and giving it the nice, shiny, and glossy look you’d expect. Let the pan cool down a bit, then carefully add the sauce in, mixing it in until shiny and blended. If you want to preserve tradition, this recipe includes adding some fresh soft cheese to the sauce (the real thing is called “prescinsoeua”, but it’s as hard to find as it is to pronounce it correctly if you’re not a Ligurian native): I had some good results using “squacquerone” (soft cheese from Romagna) but I expect that won’t be an easy quest as well for anyone outside Italy. I’ve been told that cream cheese gets pretty close, and I should really try some cottage, assuming I can find some with a sourish taste. Your mileage may vary, of course, but do try adding some fresh cheese, as it really makes the difference, adding a nice fresh and slightly sour taste to the basil aroma, the sharpness of garlic and the nutty flavour of pine nuts and olive oil.

Back to cheating now: I have to confess that despite my origins, I use a few shortcuts. First of all, I have to deal with poor basil, but hey, living in Milano that’s not my fault. Also, while I do indeed use the mortar, I rarely have the hour or so required to shred the basil: I found a good compromise is roughly cutting the leaves with a ceramic knife (if you don’t have one, ask Santa, as it really makes a world of difference when cutting vegetables), which avoids oxidation and doesn’t have any peculiar chemical reactions, leaving the basil untouched in color while shaving a good twenty-thirty minutes on the pestel. You might want to try it, and I hope Fabrizio will forgive me.

Now, back to those slides…

The sunday post: back to basics

Quadrucci in brodoFrom time to time, in the cold winter days, we happen to enjoy a good plain soup made with just stock and some fillings such as tortellini or home made pasta. This is also the occasion to get some head start for the next day: I try to cook as much stock as my largest pan can hold, knowing that at a very least we are going to enjoy a great risotto with the leftover broth.

Good stock is the pillar over which proper cooking is done. As many cooking stars write in their books, one of the key differences between amateur and professional cooking is availability of large quantities of different stocks. Every kitchen worth its name will always have no less than three huge pans with simmering broth (meat, chicken and vegetable at a very least, but fish and crustacea are common findings in good places) which is daily made with the leftover of the kitchen stuff such as carcasses, bones, fat, second-choice meat cuts and the like. I read a story once about a Chinese restaurant whose stock pot was still simmering since the very fist opening day, constantly and daily filled up with stuff and fresh water, and constantly gaining in flavour (and bacteria, I guess, but that adds up to the flavour apparently).

Since having a huge pot constantly boiling in our home kitchen is pretty much out of question, whenever I devote myself to stock I try to cook as much as I can, but I was never able to get past the quantity I need for two or three meals. Still, the difference between proper stock and cubes stuff is huge, and I try to stick as much as I can to the real thing.

Making a good stock is simple enough, once you understand that the idea is to squeeze every single molecule of flavour from your ingredients. It took me quite a bit to stabilize on ingredients, quantities and cooking methods, but I think I have settled on something that looks, smells and tastes good. The idea is simple enough: boil some meat and vegetables, add salt and you’re done, but of course the devil is in the details, and I have a simple three-step schedule for your reading pleasure.

First step is ingredients, of course. I start with choosing the right cuts of meat: second or third choice will do, keep the fillet for your next steak as stock seems to enjoy the roughest cut of meat, with large chunks of fat, nerves and bones. I usually buy 1kg of mixed meat, that is roughly 700g of beef and 300g of hen (that’s hen, not chicken: the oldest the better, chicken is way too delicate for proper stock. 300g is roughly half a hen, and you want it with skin and bones). On top of all this, I usually buy a beef bone (kneecap is excellent) for added flavour. Add a large onion, two carrots and some celery and you will end up with 3-4 liters of stock.

The second step involves pre-heating the oven. Boiling the ingredients right away is fine, but lacks a bit of punch and color. Spending some time in a very heat oven is a great way for ingredients to char-up a bit and add a lot of colour and flavour to the finished product. While the oven gets hot, it’s time to cut the meat and vegetables in largish chunks, and accomodate everything in a medium sized oven pan, which is definitely smaller than the one I would use if I were to roast a similar quantity of meat. I want my stuff to be packed full in the pan, as my aim is not to cook it thoroughly (which would incidentally seal the meat and hide the precious juices behind an impenetrable crust): what I want is a bit of char and roasty flavour, and keeping the meat packed tight will allow every chunk to have a cooked side while still being raw on the other ones.

Now, here goes a trick: unless you want to spend (as I did) a painful lot of time in scraping the caramelized meat juices from the bottom of your pan, the best option is layering your vegetables first, then put the meat on top. The juices will flow from from the meat and will be absorbed by the veggies before hitting the pan, which means every nanogram of flavour will still be in your stock, instead than in the dishwasher. Having done so, I whack my stuff in the oven for roughly 30-40 minutes and take some time to clean up the mess (my kitchen is always messy).

Once the baking is done, it’s time for the third step: I pour the meat and vegetables in the largest pan I’ve got and start adding cold water. Temperature of water is key: adding boiling water will seal the meat, which is definitely not what I want. For good measure, and to grab every single bit of flavour, I pour water in the baking pan first, then move it to the cooking pot. Lid on, gas to minimal heat, and wait. When the stock starts simmering, sometimes I get some nasty foamish stuff floating on top: that’s the meat albumin, which needs to be skimmed out since it won’t add to flavour and would make the stock grey in colour. Once the skimming is done, it’s just a matter of leaving the pot to simmer for a couple of hours, then everything is done.

Well, almost. It’s now time to take the meat and vegetables out. Unless you’re a cardboard glutton, you really want to throw that stuff away, as every bit of taste will be in the pan by now. What I need now is a big strainer, covered with some tissue which has been soaked in cold water (to tighten up the clothing threads), which helps me in having some clear, golden, and precious liquid as a reward for my efforts. Once the whole thing has cooled up a bit, it can be bottled and frozen: it will last for weeks.

We never manage to freeze the stock, though, as we don’t have a pan large enough. What we tipically do is taking half of the stock, have him fiercely boil, then throw some home-made pasta which looks like small squares (we call them “quadrucci”), which will cook in two minutes or less. A sprinkle of parmesan cheese adds a finishing touch to the ultimate comfort food for a cold winter night. The day after, typically, is a working day, and we both get home late with little time for cooking. The leftover stock makes a great occasion for a proper risotto, made with good Carnaroli rice, half an onion, some oil and butter, a glass of white wine and a touch of saffron. Looking forward to it!