VENETIAN-STYLE ‘CICCHETTI’ & BAGPIPES in COMACCHIO

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After a difficult year last year (I apologise for no postings) I asked for 2017 to be full of new and exciting experiences and….wham!.. the universe came right back with its own humorous response…. ..Eels and Zampogna for you! 

Eels or ‘anguille’ are pretty self-explanatory and they came mixed in with other deep-fried fish & prawns served as part of some delicious Venetian-style bar snacks called ‘cicchetti’ (pronounced ‘chick-etti’). We were taking a New Year’s break in Comacchio a small town south of Venice in the Po Delta – otherwise known, or rather unbeknownst to me, as the eel capital of Italy.

Zampogna on the other hand are not edible but are a type of ancient bagpipe from central and southern Italy made of goat hide and whose sound has been likened to a ‘tribe’ or flock of bleeting goat & sheep….bleeting in tune obviously!

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What were Zampogna doing over here in Comacchio I wondered. The charismatic Ambrogio Sparagna and his band were on their annual Christmas & New Year tour – playing haunting ancient melodies to ensure that Italy’s pastoral culture is kept alive.

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He and his band were staying in the same hotel as us on the canal front just 5 minutes walk from the concert hall – what luck as the temperature had dropped well into the minus degrees!

The hotel is well-known not only for its warm friendly atmosphere but also for its home-cooking. As we all gathered to eat that night around a roaring fire, we were offered ’anguilla’  in many guises including roasted or, as we had it, mixed with cabbage and a hint of cinnamon. I was slightly apprehensive I must say, but found it surprisingly delicate and utterly delicious. The band meanwhile were enjoying a hearty and noisy meal of roast eel and polenta. I can’t remember the name of the local red wine, but everyone certainly sampled a glass or three!

Apart from being able to buy marinated eel or fish on every corner, the town is beautiful…a little Venice and a dream for any photographer or cinematographer with its stunning light,  reflections, views…..and history.

I hesitate to mention Sophia Loren in the same breath as eels, but rumour has it that she was fascinated by eels and thus chose to star as a worker at an eel-pickling factory in Soldati’s film ‘La Donna del Fiume’, filmed here in Comacchio.

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In the film you see the real-life atmospheric scenes of flaming walls of spit-roasting eels and when we went round the local museum, now housed in the same fish factory (Manifattura dei Marinati), we saw this bank of fireplaces. From October to December the twelve fireplaces are stoked up once more and you can eat roasted eels as they used to do.

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We also watched black & white archive footage of traditional eel-fishing using the famed (in the eel world that is!) Comacchio fish weirs as traps. Once caught, the eels were netted out of the traps and stored in hand-woven baskets submerged in water.

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When ready for pickling, the fishermen pulled out the eels, decapitated them (harsh viewing!), then handed them to the women. The women then skewered and roasted them on enormous spits before pickling them in vinegar, salt and water and storing in barrels or cans. A fascinating glimpse into Comacchio’s history.

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One last piece of interesting ‘eel info’ comes from the Art world .. ……I had no idea there could be so many eel stories! A new theory has appeared recently concerning Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’ and the food Jesus and his disciples were eating.

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After Pinin Brambilla’s impressive 20-year restoration of the ‘L’Ultima Cena’ (hanging in Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milano), fine details once hidden under centuries of damage have now come to light.

John Varriano a noted professor of art history, has suggested that what appeared to be a generic type of fish on the table more accurately resembles eel……either roasted or grilled and garnished with sliced oranges.

Leonardo – as other painters – would often paint details of their own lives into their art. So although perhaps a more traditional meal would have been more authentic, he chose to change the menu to suit his and Renaissance tastes.

Certainly orange to accompany fish was a feature in Italian cuisine by the early sixteenth century……and eels were especially popular in Renaissance Italy because they could survive out of water for days, were easily transported and could be preserved in brine.

Added to which, according to writings by Bartolomeo Scappi – a 16th century Italian humanist and food connoisseur, the best eels came from Comacchio!

For my recipe below I’ve used prawns to replica our ‘cicchetti’ – I thought it wasn’t easy for most of us to find eel. I’ve also added strips of pumpkin because that’s what was added to our plate of ‘cicchetti’  and made a delicious extra.

Meanwhile I found a 15th century eel recipe which also used cinnamon, so I’ve added a touch of cinnamon to the batter plus a bitter orange marmalade dipping sauce as a modern nod to Leonardo.

RECIPE:
PRAWN ‘CICCHETTI’ with BITTER ORANGE DIP

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For 2
Preparation time: 10-15 minutes
Cooking time: 10-15 minutes

INGREDIENTS
450g raw prawns, shelled & deveined
Juice and zest of 2 oranges
Salt & pepper
Plain flour for dusting (about 6 Tbsp)
½ tsp-1 tsp ground cinnamon
¼ of a small pumpkin (or ‘zucca’), peeled
Vegetable oil for frying
Jar of orange marmalade ( I used a bitter orange marmalade)

METHOD

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  • Marinate the prawns in a bowl with the orange juice and zest, salt and pepper. Chill in the fridge for about an hour.
  • Take the pumpkin and with a peeler or sharp knife shave off thin slices. Keep to one side.
  • Take a plastic bag and put in the plain flour and cinnamon, plus a pinch of salt and shake.
  • Melt about ½ jar of marmalade in a small pan, adding water if necessary to make a dipping sauce. Keep warm.
  • Heat some vegetable oil in a high-sided pan – to about 60cm or enough to be sure to cover the prawns.
  • Remove prawns from the fridge and drain well.
  • Check the oil is hot enough by adding a small piece of bread – if it sizzles it’s ready.
  • First fry the pumpkin shavings, a spoonful at a time. Remove when lightly coloured and keep warm on kitchen paper.
  • Now put a handful of prawns in the flour mixture and give a good shake. Then remove, shake off any excess and pop into the hot oil (be sure to only fry a few at a time otherwise they’ll be soggy).
  • Fry for about 3 minutes or until they’re well coloured and crisp.
  • Drain on kitchen paper and repeat with the rest of the prawns.
  • Serve on a platter with slivers of pumpkin and the warm marmalade dipping sauce.

And imagine yourself on the canal-front of Comacchio sipping a glass of white wine and snacking on ‘cicchetti’……it’s Italy!

ITALIAN MOUNTAIN FOOD: ‘PIZZOCCHERI’ with ZUCCA, CAVOLO NERO & PRIMROSES

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Plate of Pizzoccheri

Arriverdeci Winter” – “Benvenuto Spring”

I always have a slight moment of panic when trekking through forests and mountains we haven’t been in before. It’s always exhilarating (actually mainly afterwards) but there’s that tiny niggle of fear that we could be on the wrong track – after all you can’t see anything through the trees – and then we’d be fated to wander in the wilderness for ever. Well obviously not – but you know what I mean!

Well this time, just as the niggle of fear started to hit we broke cover and out of the trees, clouds and snow loomed our designated lunch-spot with….even better…. wafts of the hot, garlic-scented designated lunch that awaited us. Heavenly!

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On this particular day lunch was ‘pizzoccheri’, an ancient dish of the Northern Italian region of Valtellina and consisting of a sort of ‘tagliatelle’ made with buckwheat or ‘gran saraceno’ flour, tossed with potatoes, cabbage, garlic and local cheese. A suitably hearty meal for those who work in the mountains, or indeed for those of us who had sweated their way on foot up through woods and snowdrifts!

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After finishing our meal in front of an enormous blazing fire it was time for the downhill return journey and much talk – now bravely – of our adventure.

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This year, our mild winter has now suddenly changed to cold and damp weather. So when I heard of the snowfall in Piemonte and Valle Aosta and watched the darkening skies out of my window, I felt in need of some comfort food to remind me of warming fires and warm full stomachs……where was that ‘pizzoccheri’?

Checking out my fridge (I didn’t want to walk down into the village with a downpour threatening) I found the only potatoes I possessed were already soft and sprouting green shoots, but I found ‘cavolo nero’  (the Italian equivalent of kale), a small squash or ‘zucca’, some garlic, parmesan and a fancy packet of ‘gran saraceno’ pasta gifted to us for Christmas.

Ingredients

As an aside – because ‘gran saraceno’ grows well in poor soil and harsh conditions it has become an ideal staple food for the mountains – and a plus for some of us is that it’s not a grain but a plant related to the sorrel family and is therefore gluten free.

I rather liked the idea of swapping potatoes in the dish for squash – they would give a dash of vibrant spring-colour and after their migration from the New World five hundred or so years ago ‘zucca’ have truly settled in and integrated themselves into the Italian way of life.

As it was now pouring with rain outside I decided to make my own pasta instead of using the packet one. I looked up the recipe as written by traditional specialists at the ‘Accademia del Pizzocchero’ of Teglio, but I saw they recommend a traditional method of flour and water. I’ve always been advised to use eggs for making pasta so here I’m using egg and milk.

RECIPE:
‘PIZZOCCHERI’  with ZUCCA & CAVOLO NERO 

Plate of Pizzoccheri

For 4
Preparation time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: 20-30 minutes
Pre-heat oven: 200C/400F

INGREDIENTS

For home-made Pasta
200g ‘gran saraceno’ or buckwheat flour
100g stoneground white flour
1 large egg
Pinch salt
150ml warm milk (appx)

OR – use 300g dried pizzoccheri

½ squash or 1 small squash (about 300g)
Olive oil, drizzle
Coarse salt
Fresh sage leaves

75g butter (butter is mainly used in the mountains here for obvious reasons – olive trees don’t grow but cows do)
1 shallot
1 clove garlic, grated
Cavolo nero or kale (about 300g)
Organic primroses for decoration (optional!) – or freshly chopped parsley

Flour & Egg

METHOD

Mix the two flours and salt together and tip onto a large wooden board. Make a well in the centre and break an egg into it.

Take a fork and start beating the egg gradually bringing in the flour from the edge of the bowl and slowly adding the milk.

Start using your hands and mix well together – you might need a little more milk if too dry or a little less, or more white flour if too wet.

Knead for a few minutes and when it feels smooth and pliable you’re ready to let it rest. Form into a ball, wrap in cling-film and put to one side for at least half an hour or until you’re ready to roll it out. I actually put mine in the fridge overnight and rolled it out the next day.

Pasta ball

Take a large pastry board. Divide the dough ball in half – I find it easier to roll out two halves rather than the whole ball. But entirely up to you!

With your rolling pin roll out the dough into a fairly thin sheet – it’s too finicky for me to measure the exact millimeter thickness so I have to be infuriatingly vague and say, not too thin that it’s transparent and fragile but not too thick that it looks heavy and unattractive!

When you’re happy with your effort, trim the edges then cut the dough into strips approximately 10-15cm long by 2cm wide and put to one side, onto another floured board or plate.

Pizzoccheri pasta

I’m making pasta by hand because I find it incredibly satisfying and because I don’t make pasta very often. But for those of you with pasta machines you’ll probably use those instead of hand rolling.

Zucca for baking

Whilst the pasta is resting, de-seed the zucca and cut into large chunks. Drizzle with oil and coarse salt and dot with fresh sage leaves. Bake for about 20 minutes or until soft but not squishy. Remove from oven and allow to cool. When cool, remove the skin and dice in to smallish cubes.

Then bring a large pan of salted water to the boil.

Roughly chop the cavolo nero leaves, discarding any stems that are too thick and put them into the boiling water.

After 3-4 minutes add the pizzoccheri pasta strips and cook for 5 minutes (if you’re using dried pasta, check the cooking time).

Meanwhile heat a large frypan with butter. Add the finely chopped shallot and grated garlic and cook until soft but not brown.

Add the roasted pumpkin cubes at the last minute, stir briefly until heated through and season well.

Drain both the pasta and cavolo nero (keep back a little of the cooking water) and add to the fry-pan.

Give a quick stir, adding some of the cooking water, and tip onto plates.

Sprinkle with grated parmesan cheese and decorate with a few spring primroses or chopped parsley.

Plate of Pizzoccheri

N.B.  Traditionally this pasta has mountain cheese melted in as well as parmesan, but much as I love the local cheese – and Bitto is usually the cheese used for this dish – I wanted to make the dish a little lighter…..a little more ‘spring-like’!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ITALIAN WALNUT SAUCE, WARM-SPICED CHICKEN WINGS & A GAME OF WALNUTS

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Walnuts

I’m already thinking post-Christmas and that burning question of what to eat on Boxing Day or the day after…or the day after that…? Left-over turkey, ham and trimmings are always a treat but sometimes you want to pop in a little surprise, something different – but without the work!

Well….I’ve just discovered something rather wonderful thanks to our lovely neighbour who presented us with a large bag of organic, home-grown walnuts. ‘Salsa di noci’ or walnut salsa is this something rather wonderful, a classic Ligurian sauce that’s normally served with pasta but here I’m using it as a dip for chicken wings.

I’m sure somewhere you’ll still have a large bowl of nuts and walnuts left-over from the festivities…..or maybe like me you still have some from last year’s Christmas! If so, chuck them out and start with fresh.

Book yourself some quiet time – light the fire, put on an old movie, find your nutcrackers…. and get cracking walnuts! If you’ve also got some almonds …. crack those too.

Don’t crack all your walnuts – (now there’s a motto for life!) – keep some whole ones back and give this ancient Italian game a try. I’ve just copied the origins and instructions from a wall in the Ligurian village where I found this game and I think you’ll find it reassuringly non-energetic – physically or mentally – for after-Christmas partying!

OMILLA (the triangle in the circle)

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Historical origins:
This game was part of the target games played with walnuts in the classical Greek and Roman times. The triangle shaped area that is drawn on the ground, corresponded to the capital letter ‘delta’ of the Greek alphabet. The throws were done with walnuts (which was a symbol of youth games in the classical period) or small astragal bones from sheep or goats carcasses which were used as dice or for other games in those periods.

Number of players:
As many as wished, minimum two.

Materials:
Walnuts or small animal bones or even small stones are good.

How to play:
In turns, each player throws the walnuts or bones on the ground from a distance previously decided and the same for everyone, bopping that their own walnut will land within the area where the highest score is marked. Highest total score wins.

Obviously I used my walnuts but if you happen to have any sheep or goat carcasses around …..then bones it is!

Meanwhile, here’s a recipe I did earlier!…

RECIPE: ITALIAN ‘SALSA di NOCI’ with WARM-SPICED CHICKEN WINGS
For 6 – to be eaten with fingers

Nut-cracking time: flexible
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 25 minutes

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Pre-heat oven 200C/400F

INGREDIENTS

CHICKEN WINGS (for 6)
24 chicken wings (I’ve allowed 4 each)
1 Tbsp sumac spice
1 Tbsp paprika
½ tsp allspice
½ tsp cinnamon
Salt & ground black pepper to taste
2-3 Tbsp olive oil (appx.)

SALSA di NOCI (to use as a dip
125g shelled walnuts
75g shelled almonds
1 clove garlic, peeled
½ tsp salt
5 heaped Tbsp grated parmesan cheese
200ml single cream
5 Tbsp olive oil (appx.)

METHOD
Mix the chicken wings, spices and olive oil together in a large bowl.

Arrange in one layer in a baking dish and roast in the oven for about 25 minutes.

Remove and allow to sit covered for about 5 minutes.

Put the nuts into a food processor and blitz until they are coarsely ground.

Tip in the garlic, salt, parmesan cheese, cream and olive oil and blitz again until well mixed to make a fairly firm dipping sauce.

Adjust to how liquid you would like the salsa – adding more oil or cream if necessary. Pour into a bowl – or bowls.

Serve the chicken wings on a large wooden platter with the bowl/bowls of ‘salsa di noci’ and perhaps a large green salad. No cutlery needed – these are to be eaten in the fingers – so just a pile of paper napkins.

Follow up with some fresh tangerines and if you can find a bottle of the Italian liqueur made with young walnuts called ‘Nocino’ – then this would be just the icing on the cake!

AUGURI! BUON NATALE e BUON ANNO!

 

 

 

 

 

 

ITALIAN PORCINI TEMPURA with PROSECCO & BALSAMIC VINEGAR DIP

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I’m up to my ears in Porcini – not a phrase that’s often bandied about these days  – especially outside Italy!

I frightened the guy at my local market the other day with my excitement at the sight of fresh porcini sitting on his stall. He poor man was mortified as he thought I’d spied some horrific creepy-crawly damaging his vegetables so I had to quickly tone down my ardour. Clearly I need to re-think how I express joy and pleasure as I seem to be giving the wrong impression and just end up scaring people!

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On the other hand I saw my neighbour return from a walk recently, not in his usual quiet and calm – bordering on morose – state but thoroughly over-excited and gesticulating in an alarming fashion. He too had seen porcini and couldn’t seem to contain his exuberance. I was therefore feeling rather proud that I might have started to become truly ‘Italian’ in my funghi euphoria.

I had actually been searching for fresh porcini for a while but everyone kept telling me that it’d been such a hot summer that the harvest was bad this year and fresh porcini were scarce. But with the recent influx of rain they started once again popping up in the woods nearby…..or fairly nearby…or actually I’ve no idea where they’d been found. Gathering porcini seems to be a bit like truffle-hunting – but without dogs – their whereabouts are a mystery and top secret.

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I’d made some Japanese-style vegetable tempura recently, which went down very well with my Italian guests, so I thought I’d make it again but this time with porcini – their meaty yet delicate flesh would be ideal. One of the guests mentioned that they always used grappa or sparkling wine in their batter so I thought I’d try this out.

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I’m using Prosecco because we’d just returned from a trip through the ‘strada del prosecco’ – the region around Valdobbiadene in the Veneto, south of Trento. Only now have I cracked how to correctly pronounce Valdobbiadene – the DOC centre for Prosecco! Obviously we bought a few bottles so I thought I’d use some of the last remaining bottle!

So, here’s the recipe which is really easy to make and rather delicious….see what you think!

RECIPE

ITALIAN PORCINI TEMPURA with PROSECCO & BALSAMIC VINEGAR DIPPING SAUCE

For 2 as a light supper (or 4 for a starter)

Preparation time: 5-10 minutes

Cooking time: appx. 2-3 minutes per mushroom

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INGREDIENTS

8 large porcini mushrooms (use large field mushrooms if you can’t get porcini)

Vegetable oil for frying (about ½ – ¾ litre)

Tempura batter

100g plain flour

25g cornflour

Good pinch of salt

175ml Prosecco, well chilled

Dipping Sauce

1 Tbsp balsamic vinegar

4 Tbsp Prosecco

METHOD

Mix the balsamic vinegar and prosecco together, pour into small dipping bowls and set aside.

Carefully wipe each porcini clean with a damp cloth or soft brush.

Slice lengthwise into medium-thick slices – depending on size you’ll probably get about 3-4  slices per mushroom.

Sift the flour, cornflour and salt into a bowl and pour in the chilled Prosecco. Whisk briefly just to combine but don’t over-mix.

Heat vegetable oil in a high-sided pan or wok over high heat. To test if it’s hot enough add a drop of batter to see if it sizzles (heat needs to be about 180C/350F).

Dip the porcini slices into the batter and then immediately into the hot oil. Don’t overcrowd the pan – I did about 2-3 slices at a time.

When they’re a light golden brown (about 2-3 minutes) take out of the pan and keep warm on a plate covered with kitchen paper.

When finished serve with dipping sauce and fresh parsley – and some coarse sea salt.

 

 

 

GUEST BLOGS: A ROMANTIC ALPINE FLOWER RISOTTO; HAZLENUT MERINGUES with RICOTTA & FRESH FIGS

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Here are another couple of posts I did recently for http://www.turinitalyguide.com which I hope you too will like!….

click on: http://www.turinitalyguide.com/risotto-recipe

A ROMANTIC ALPINE FLOWER RISOTTO

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click on http://www.turinitalyguide.com/langhe-hazelnut-meringue-recipe

LANGHE HAZLENUT MERINGUES with RICOTTA & FRESH FIGS

Fig & Ricotta meringue

……and for a lovely healthy and easy pomegranate recipe click on:

http://www.turinitalyguide.com/italian-pomegranate-recipe

ITALIAN POMEGRANATE HEALTH JELLIES

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Hope you like them all…..there’s more to come!

GUEST BLOGS: ‘THE ALTA LANGHE’ and ‘RECIPES FROM PIEDMONT’

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IMAG3872 - Copia - Copia   Murazzano 2

I know, I know!……I’m sorry I’m way behind on my blog but I?m working on the next one right now and thereafter I should be up to speed!

I haven’t been idly lounging around sunning myself on a palm-edged beach – more’s the pity! But I had an exciting offer from Turin Italy Guide asking if I’d like to write a weekly guest blog about Piedmont, a place I love, and its food. Naturally I was thrilled to be asked and so I said yes please…and grazie!

I’ve now written 3 – with another one being posted this weekend. If you’d like to read them here are the links:

http://www.turinitalyguide.com/alta-langhe

http://www.turinitalyguide.com/recipe-from-piedmont

http://www.turinitalyguide.com/piedmontese-soup-recipe