New website coming soon

Hello everyone,

My blog turinmamma.com/ is currently undergoing a facelift and, as part of the changes, it will be a self-hosted site.  When my new site goes live (the address, turinmamma.com/ will remain the same) to continue to receive post updates to your email, you’ll need to subscribe to receive email notifications again. WordPress.com bloggers should also subscribe to receive  news feed notifications once again.  Simply look for the Follow Me Via Email box or the RSS icon on my new site. I do hope you will continue to follow as there are exciting times ahead.  In September, I will start a professional culinary course at l’Associazione Cuochi di Torino. During the same month, I will also start taking part in a new monthly blogging roundtable with a group of Italian food bloggers I’ve been lucky enough to ‘meet’ and connect with online.

I’m looking forward to sharing more recipes and food stories from my kitchen in Turin with you very soon.

A prestissimo!

Rosemarie

Bagnet verd (Piedmontese green sauce)

I have a confession to make. Unless I’m baking or recipe-testing for this blog, I don’t always take out my kitchen scales to check how much an ingredient weighs. And I don’t think I am alone in this approach either. Many Italian-language recipes feature informal measuring units such as manciate (‘handfuls’), bicchieri (‘drinking glasses’) pugni (‘fistfuls’), ciuffi (‘clumps’) and pizzichi (‘pinches’).  Some older recipe compendiums may not feature any approximate indications at all, like Giuseppe Chioni’s remarkable prison-camp penned Arte culinaria. Many Italian cooks simply assume that their observers or readers will have the taste and instincts necessary to gauge the right quantity or quanto basta, meaning ‘how much is enough’ or ‘to taste’.

Bagnet verd (the Piedmontese name for salsa verde or ‘green sauce’) is easily made according to the q.b. philosophy.  This herbaceous sauce, which has a recorded history going back to the Middle Ages, lends itself perfectly to ditching grams and putting whatever herbs, alliums, thickener and acidic liquid you have on hand (or fancy) in it. In The Medieval Kitchen, Reddon, Sabban and Serventi provide us a recipe from the period which includes soaked stale bread, parsley, sage, pepper, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, powdered ginger, garlic and vinegar.  Then there’s Bartolomeo Scappi, ‘secret’ cook to popes and author of the seminal Renaissance cookbook Opera with a distinctly less spicier version. He prepared his with parsley, spinach tips, sorrel, burnet, rocket, mint, pepper, sugar, vinegar and the optional pesto-like touch of crushed almonds or hazelnuts.  In the 19th century, Giovanni Vialardi and Pellegrino Artusi did away with any remaining hint of sweetness and went for meatier umami by adding crushed boiled egg yolks, capers and anchovies to their bagnetti. Artusi, interestingly enough, suggests using capsicums in the absence of capers. Beppe Lodi and Giovanni Goria, authors of two classic 20th century Piedmontese recipe books, gave this zesty preparation even more piquancy by including a spagnolino, their amusing word (it literally means ‘little Spanish thing’) for a dried red chilli pepper, in their interpretations too.

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My version is a compromise between TP’s tastes, my tastes and whatever we have available in season and at home. Sorry purists, but TP and I are not crazy about raw garlic (unless it’s fresh) so it’s been removed in favour of a spring onion.  This should be chopped finely and left to soak in vinegar for at least an hour. TP has also had a rather strange phobia of boiled eggs since he was a child so  I tend to opt for a large slice of leftover bread (of which we have plenty and I am loathe to waste!) soaked in vinegar as a thickener instead. When it’s in season, I also can’t resist adding a heaped fistful of basil leaves to two already generous bunches of parsley. I use salt-packed capers and anchovies so I find that there is no need for salt ‘to taste’ either. To reduce all these ingredients to small pieces, I prefer the coarser finish of chopping them with a mezzaluna, that wonderful two-handled crescent-shaped knife my mother-in-law and other Italian home cooks swear by. I won’t balk at the quicker more homogenised result of a food processor though when pressed for time. At any rate, the ‘recipe’ below is not prescriptive at all, merely a set of guidelines.  Basically, don’t be afraid to adjust quantities, add/omit ingredients and vary the preparation method to your tastes and means. That’s what quanto basta is all about!

In Piedmont, bagnet verd is one of the seven sauces that traditionally accompanies the seven cuts of boiled meat, the seven boiled ‘garnishes’ (mostly offal and extremities) and the three side dishes all comprising the Gran bollito misto. A less ambitious but no less traditional alternative to this component-rich ‘boiled dinner’ is to prepare some lingua lessa or boiled tongue to go with your zesty bagnetto. Offal not your thing? Then use it give some plain grilled fish, meat or chicken some zing.  Looking for a vegetarian option? Simply remove the anchovies from the ‘non-recipe’ below and dress some oven-roasted capsicums or boiled potatoes with it instead. Love cheese? Use it as a topping on some soft cheese rounds, like the Piedmontese often do with their tomini. Its peppery flavour also works well on a simple slice of bread and, surprisingly enough, pizza.

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Ingredients (makes enough to fill a small jam jar)

  • 1 medium to large-sized spring onion, finely chopped and macerated in vinegar for 1 hour
  • 1 large slice of stale country bread, soaked in vinegar for 1 hour
  • White or red wine vinegar, q.b.
  • 4 salt-packed anchovies, soaked and rinsed in water
  • 2 large fistfuls of salt-packed capers, soaked and rinsed in water
  • Two large bunches of parsley, washed and dried
  • 1 large handful of basil leaves, washed and dried
  • Olive oil, q.b.

Method

Drain chopped spring onion and bread of any excess vinegar in a colander. Chop soaked bread into fine pieces. Add onion and chopped bread to a bowl. Drain capers and anchovy fillets on plate lined with paper towels. Split the anchovies into two and pull out their spines. Chop anchovy fillets and capers very finely with a good knife or mezzaluna. Add to bowl with the chopped onion and bread. Remove thicker stems from the parsley and chop very finely along with the basil leaves. Add to bowl and mix ingredients until well-combined. Add olive oil in a slow steady stream and stir continuously until you have a dense sauce.

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Farinata and other food myths

farinata_darkMarco Polo discovered pasta at Kublai Khan’s court in China and brought it back to Europe. Catherine de Medici brought forks, artichokes, peas, asparagus, broccoli, truffles and sorbets to France and changed the way her adopted country ate and cooked forever. In the 1600s, the frail crown duke of Savoy was cured of his ailments by breadsticks. Tiramisù was invented as a ‘pick me up’ for courtesans in the 17th century.

These are just some of the stories or myths Italians are fond of narrating about foods and recipes from their country. Historians may frown upon the practise but even Gillian Riley, who gives Catherine de Medici and the food myths surrounding her a thorough demolition job in The Oxford Companion to Italian Food, concedes that these anecdotes bring a human touch to the plain facts. Its legends like these that demonstrate how much Italians care about ingredients and cooking.

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The  creation myths surrounding farinata, an unleavened oven-baked flatbread made of chickpea flour, are some of my favourites.  There’s one which traces its origins as far back as Ancient Greece and Rome. Soldiers in need of a quick and cheap meal would prepare a batter of chickpea flour and water which they would then cook on their metal shields out in the hot sun. The other is about a chance discovery by Genoese sailors after the maritime republic defeated its archrival  Pisa in the Battle of Meloria in 1284. On their return journey, the Genoese ships were hit by a storm. The ships’ provisions of oil and chickpea flour were overturned and soaked with salt water. The sailors’ supplies were limited, leaving them little choice but to eat bowls of salty chickpea paste. Some of the sailors refused to eat this paste and  left their bowls out on the deck exposed to the sun. The sun-baked mixture was found to be more palatable. Once they were back on dry land, the sailors perfected the batter and baked it in an oven. They called this oven-baked pancake l’oro di Pisa (Pisan gold), in mockery of the defeated Pisans.

Naturally, there is little basis in fact to prove these  legends. However, most people agree that farinata originated in Genoa. And it was from this port city – one of the great seafaring powers of the Mediterranean during the Middle Ages and early Renaissance – that this flatbread went on to be introduced to regions within the maritime republic’s sphere of influence. Look out for socca along the Cote d’Azur in France, cecina or torta di ceci along the Tuscan coast, fainè in northern Sardinia and belecauda in the southeast of Piedmont. The names may change but the essential ingredients (chickpea flour, water, salt and olive oil) and method for making them are identical.

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Turin has also adopted farinata as its own. In fact, a slice of this nutritionally-dense pancake was my meal of choice when I first moved to the city and was commuting between companies as an English teacher. Like those weary soldiers from Antiquity, I didn’t always have time for a sit-down lunch and often went to the closest panificio to buy a bread roll and some farinata, for a quick and filling lunch-to-go.

Though best-known in the north west of Italy as a street snack, it can be made at home too. It’s taken several years of on and off experimentation but I think I’ve finally worked out how to obtain the golden, crisp and flaky-topped farinate of the professionisti. Firstly, there’s the batter’s water to flour ratio. It should be 3:1. If this looks disturbingly thin to you while you’re whisking, please, please refrain from the urge to add more flour. It will set once it’s sizzling in the oven, I promise! Secondly, you’ll want to set your oven to a high temperature. Woodfired ovens (which can reach temperatures of over 400 degrees Celsius) are often used to bake the best farinate so your domestic oven should be set close to its maximum temperature. Finally, there’s the material of the baking tray. Tradition calls for farinata to be cooked in a round tin-lined copper tray called a testo. After trying out a long line of baking trays in a variety of materials (ranging from aluminium, non-stick and a specially treated steel), I finally forked out the money for one of these hefty trays.  There’s no point in  arguing with the purists on this one. That reddish piece of round metal now proudly hanging in my kitchen is an extraordinarily efficient conductor of heat. The farinata won’t stick to it either. So, for best possible results in a domestic kitchen, invest in a testo![i]

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Ingredients for a round baking tray with a 30cm diameter (serves 2 generously)

  • 100 g chickpea flour
  • 300 g water
  • olive oil
  • salt, to taste
  • black pepper

Method

Put chickpea flour and salt in mixing bowl. Add water in a slow and steady stream to avoid forming lumps. Whisk until batter is smooth. Leave batter to rest for a couple of hours. Pre-heat oven to 225 degrees. Pour olive oil into baking tray ensuring that the base is covered. Pour farinata batter onto tray. Stir batter and olive oil so they  are evenly distributed. The batter should be about 3-4 mm high. Bake for about 20 minutes or until farinata has begun to pull away from the edges of the baking tray and has formed a nice golden crust on top. Slice farinata and serve hot with some freshly ground black pepper on top. Buon appetito!

[i] If a copper tray is not in your budget, the next best material to use would be the specially treated steel Italians call ferro blu, followed by aluminium and non-stick. If using these materials, the baking time will be longer (around 25-30 minutes). N.B. All links to products I’ve just made are entirely non-sponsored! 

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Homemade Almond Milk

homemade_almond_milk-12No, I haven’t suddenly realised the errors of my ways after advocating the consumption of offal in my previous post and gone vegan or dairy-free. My motto is, and always will be, all foods are fine (unless you have a valid health reason obviously!) in moderation. Basically, it’s another case of intending to post about something (in this case, a Sicilian dessert) which calls for this plant-based milk and then realising this milk itself deserves its own post. An aromatic and satisfying drink, almond milk also has a long and interesting history as a cooking staple.

Unlike today, medieval and Renaissance cooks rarely relied on animal milk due to its short shelf-life, particularly in warmer climates. Milk merchants had a reputation for spoiling their wares and diluting their product with water. Only the freshly milked white liquid from a cow was trusted. Lenten dietary injunctions against animal-derived products, moreover, meant that consumption of animal-based milks were forbidden for a good part of the year. All Fridays, the forty day period of Lent and other important days of religious observance were designated as giorni di magro or ‘lean’ days. Almond milk, less perishable than animal milk, was therefore an important kitchen staple during this period. The white liquid  extracted from prunus amygdalus was used to make soups, butter and cheeses. Bartolomeo Scappi, secret cook to Pope Pius IV, devoted the third book of his 1570 cookery compendium Opera to ‘Dishes Proper for Lean and Lenten days’. Several of his lean day preparations include almond milk. Here is his recipe for mock ricotta:

Get two pounds of almonds, shelled in cold water; they should have soaked for twelve hours.  Grind them in a mortar, moistening them in reduced pike broth so that what is ground becomes like milk. Put that through a strainer, adding it to three ounces of finely ground sugar, three ounces of flour starch and four ounces of rosewater. Put it into a casserole pot with salt and cook it, stirring constantly with a spoon until it thickens. When it is firm, take it out. Splash a ricotta mould with rosewater and put the almond mixture into it. Leave it in a cool place until it is quite cold. Then serve it garnished with sugar and flowers on top.[i]

Scappi added flour starch, a thickener and not a coagulant, such as rennet, vinegar or lemon juice, to his almond milk. So, technically speaking, this ricotta is really a set dessert or pudding made to look like the aforementioned whey cheese.

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These days, almond milk is the key ingredient in a Sicilian pudding I’m quite fond of, biancomangiare.  This concoction, meaning ‘white food’, appears to have originated in medieval monasteries. Its ancestor dish, which was popular with convalescing aristocrats and people on the pilgrim route all over Europe, was made with a typically of the time agrodolce or sweet-sour mix of almonds or almond milk, shredded capon or chicken breasts, spices and sugar. After the Renaissance, Italian and other European aristocrats’ enthusiasm for liberally adding sugar and spices to otherwise savoury foods waned. The contemporary version is completely sweet and is generally made with almond milk, cream[ii] and sugar thickened with cornstarch or gelatin.

I never ended up making biancomangiare. After an almost twenty-four hour period of soaking almonds, removing their skins, grinding, pureeing and finally, filtering, I was curious to try the fruits of my labours. I poured the resulting milk into a glass. It was more watery than the full cream cow’s milk I’m used to drinking.  It had body though and the drupe’s[iii] distinct aroma.  I kept refilling my glass until I no longer had enough of the restorative liquid for making the silken white pudding I had been so keen to try. I’ve made almond milk at least five times for purely drinking purposes since.

Italian supermarkets and health food shops are full of cartons of ready-made almond milk. Here, there are also condensed syrups, powders and pastes for making latte di mandorla. In theory, they make the soaking, blanching and all the other hard work involved obsolete. I‘m certain though you’ll be more satisfied with the results when preparing the almonds yourself. Not only will you understand the principles behind the extraction process better, you’ll also know exactly what ingredients have been put in it. Those almond milk cartons and pre–prepared mixes often contain sugar (I prefer my milk unsweetened) and unnecessary additives. I won’t lie, you’ll need to plan ahead when making your own almond milk from scratch. After soaking the almonds overnight, set aside at least an hour to remove their wrinkled skins. Maybe you could enlist another set of nimble fingers for this rather slippery and painstaking task too!  You’ll also need a muslin cheesecloth, a nut milk bag or a very fine mesh sieve for filtering the almond puree.

The following method for preparing almond milk was adapted from the Italian eco-food blogger Lisa Casali’s book Autoproduzione in cucina. Please note that the quantities of water (1 litre) and almonds (300 grams) I’ve indicated are changeable. For this reason, it’s not a strict recipe. It’s the method that counts! If you prefer a watery milk, simply decrease the amount of almonds or add more water. Want a denser and richer milk? Add more almonds or lessen the amount of water. You could also add 3-4 bitter almonds or apricot kernels[iv] to your mixture for extra flavour. Don’t add any more though as they naturally contain trace amounts of cyanide and consuming them raw in large quantities is poisonous.

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Ingredients (makes about 1 litre of almond milk)

  • 300 g almonds
  • 3-4 bitter almonds or apricot kernels (optional)
  • 1 L cold water

Method

Soak almonds and (if using) apricot kernels in cold water overnight. Remove skins from almonds and lay them on a clean tea towel to dry. Grind almonds in a food processor while adding water in a steady stream until you get a puree. Leave almond puree in refrigerator to infuse for 2-3 hours. Line a colander with several layers of muslin cheesecloth and pour the puree through the lined colander. Using the back of a large spoon, press the pulp[v] that has accumulated inside the colander to extract as much liquid as possible.  Transfer milk to a bottle, cover and store in refrigerator. Best consumed within three days.

[i] Extract from Terrence Scully’s 2008 translation of The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi (1570): The Art and Craft of a Master Cook

[ii] Some versions use almond milk exclusively though.

[iii] Almonds are actually a drupe and not a true nut. They belong to the prunus genus like cherries, peaches and apricots.

[iv] In Italy, these are used to make the liqueur Amaretto and in amaretti biscuits.

[v] Don’t throw away that pulp! Here’s a link to a recipe from our friend Pellegrino Artusi for making sure it does not go to waste.

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Saturday tripe

I was a very picky eater growing up. There were so many things that I wouldn’t touch then. Fish (with the rather curious exception of fish fingers and canned tuna), onions, butter, anything leafy and green. I think I may have refused to eat eggplants at some point too. Then there was tripe. I would strategically move these strips of stomach lining to the side of my bowl so I could enjoy the otherwise delicious tomato, beef and potato-based stew my mother often prepared this ingredient in.

As I grew up and travelled, my palate widened significantly. I eat all fish now. I love onion-based dishes like French soupe à l’onion and this Piedmontese gem I recently posted about. With all the cakes and tarts I like to make, I probably use too much butter now as well! I’ve become obsessed with eating crudités and my favourite way of getting my almost daily fix of these is with a bowl of raw green leaves dressed in olive oil, vinegar and salt. In summer, I probably use eggplants in some way at least every second day. Until a recent trip to Rome though, I refused to give tripe another chance.

Somehow, I don’t think I was alone in my dislike of tripe. I’ve seen many people wrinkle their noses at the mere mention of the word. Since taking the plunge and eating a plateful of trippa alla romana last October though, I’ve been pondering a few questions based on what University of Pennsylvania Psychology professor Paul Rozin has to say about food preferences, distaste and disgust. Was my dislike of tripe sensory? Did I refuse to eat it because of its taste? Or, was my dislike conceptual? Did I reject it because I was revolted by the idea of eating it?

Looking back, I suspect my dislike was conceptual. Rozin has found that almost all things causing disgust are of animal origin. Consuming animal organs may just remind us a little too much of bodily functions, our animal nature and, most frighteningly of all, our own mortality. At some point as a child, I probably picked up that I was supposed to be disgusted by cows’ guts.

According to Rozin, the best way of overcoming both sensory distaste and conceptual disgust is exposing ourselves to the food in question. So, since trying that admittedly wonderful tripe simmered in tomato and seasoned with mint and pecorino in Rome, I’ve been making the effort to ‘re-educate’ my tastes through research about and cooking with it.

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Italy is an ideal country for a culinary re-education in trippa. It is widely available and used throughout the country. The obvious first port of call was Paolo, my local macellaio di fiducia and repository of all knowledge and products (offal included!) bovine-related. One day, while buying some meat to make carne cruda (Piedmontese steak tartare), I expressed interest in ordering tripe for the following week.  His response: ‘Che tipo? (What kind?)’

Surprised by his response, I went back home and checked the recipe for trippa alla fiorentina I’d been given to test for this lovely lady’s upcoming cookbook.  I then sent an sms to Paolo confirming that I needed a mix of croce (blanket tripe) and cuffia (honeycomb tripe) without really knowing what they meant. Later, I would learn that there are four types of tripe in total, all corresponding to the four chambers of a cow’s stomach: rumine or rumen (blanket) tripe; reticolo or reticulum (honeycomb) tripe;  omaso or omasum (book tripe); abomaso or abomasum (reed) tripe.

Delighted with the results at cooking with blanket and honeycomb tripe Florentine-style, I tried my hand at making trippa lampredotto in zimino, another Tuscan dish made with reed tripe and chard. I also couldn’t help but check what my stovetop companion Artusi had to say about trippa.

Surprisingly enough for an adopted Florentine, the author of Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well was not fond of tripe. He famously declared in his first of three lone tripe recipes, ‘No matter how it’s cooked and flavoured, tripe is an ordinary dish.’ In his opinion, only the milanesi were capable of making it ‘light and tender’. Its digestive effects, moreover, were undesirable for those with ‘weak stomachs’. His polpette di trippa (‘tripe meatballs’) on the other hand, adapted from Antonio Latini’s 1694 recipe in Lo scalco alla moderna (The Modern Steward),  were ‘quite pleasant … when prepared with the right seasonings’ and would not ‘lie heavily on the stomach’.

Personally, I had no problems digesting any of the tripe dishes I made (even the ones that Artusi claimed lie heavily on our stomachi). For anyone new to eating tripe though, I think his polpette di trippa are the way to go initially, with their familiar meatball-like shape and consistency. I’ve seasoned mine with parsley and nutmeg like Artusi, but other herbs and spices could work well too. You’ll also need to check with your butcher if the honeycomb tripe you’ve bought has been cleaned and pre-cooked. The recipe below, inspired by Artusi’s and Emiko Davies’, includes instructions for pre-boiling should you purchase tripe that requires pre-boiling.

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Ingredients (makes about 20-25 polpette di trippa)

  • 500 g honeycomb tripe
  • 1 onion, peeled, for pre-boiling the tripe
  • 100 g ham, prosciutto or pancetta
  • 1 egg
  • 60 g Parmesan, Pecorino or Grana Padano cheese
  • 300 g fine breadcrumbs
  • A handful of parsley, finely chopped
  • A pinch of nutmeg, freshly ground
  • A pinch of salt
  • 100 g flour
  • Olive oil, for dipping
  • Vegetable oil, for deep frying

Method

Wash tripe in warm running water, drain it and place it in a large saucepan with a peeled onion. Cover with water and boil for 1 hour or until tender. While cooking, ensure that the tripe sufficiently covered with water. When cooked, drain tripe,  rinse it thoroughly and leave it to cool.

Mince cooled tripe and ham finely in a food processor. Add the egg, cheese, 2 tablespoons of breadcrumbs, parsley, nutmeg and salt and mix until all the ingredients are well-combined.

Put three bowls on your work surface and add flour to the first one, olive oil to the second one and the breadcrumbs to the third one. Using your hands, form 20-25 small balls (they should have a diameter of about 3.5 to 4 centimetres) with the tripe mixture.  Dip and roll each ball in the bowl with the flour, followed by the bowl with the olive oil and finally, the bowl with the breadcrumbs. While rolling the balls, ensure that their surfaces are evenly coated.

Heat  vegetable oil in a saucepan until the temperature is 170 degrees. Fry four polpette at a time for 1 and a half minutes or until evenly crisp and golden brown. Remove polpette with a slotted spoon onto a plate covered with absorbent paper towels.

Serve hot as an antipasto, alongside platefuls of olives and sliced prosciutto.  

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The post Saturday tripe was inspired by the Roman saying: Giovedì gnocchi, venerdì pesce, sabato trippa (‘Thursday gnocchi, Friday fish, Saturday tripe’). This post concludes my trilogy about the three foods.

Crostata di marmellata

My intention was actually to post about a rich ricotta-filled baked good for Easter. Think Neapolitan pastiera, Sicilian cassata or Giovanni Goria’s crostata di seirass[i]. The resolve to make these wonderfully elaborate sweets disappeared fairly quickly though thanks in great part to my husband’s love of a simpler, dare I say it, ‘homier’ dessert requiring pasta frolla or sweet shortcrust pastry. Early last month, TP caught me dusting my kitchen work bench with flour. His automatic assumption – the sweet, buttery dough I was about to knead was for a jam tart or, as it is called in Italian, crostata di marmellata. I didn’t want to disappoint him. Luckily enough, there actually happened to be a jar of plum jam in our pantry. The ricotta I had especially bought was put to another (savoury) culinary use that evening.

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This change of plans suited me just fine too. The crostata di marmellata is a thoroughly enjoyable sweet to make at home, once you’ve had some practice. It’s not hard to see why Italian bakers make a point of displaying these criss-crossed creations in their vetrine[ii] either. They are proud of their latticework. And, as someone who is content to just lay my pastry strips down one by one, I particularly admire the intricacy of crostate made with a top layer of interwoven strisce.[iii]

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History buff that I am, I wasn’t disappointed either when it came to researching the crostata’s past, which appears to go back to the Renaissance. Bartolomeo Scappi, ‘secret’ cook to Pope Pius IV, included several recipes for pastry-based dishes in his 1570 cookbook Opera. Incidentally, Scappi’s seminal work is notable for, among many other things, being the first in depth look at pastry-making. He used the term crostata for a variety of flaky dough-encrusted preparations. Fillings included cheese, crabmeat, prawns, pork jowls, artichokes, cardoon hearts, truffles, sweetbreads, calf’s tongue, ‘the viscera[iv] of any sort of turtle’, plums, sour cherries, quinces and pears.  Sugar and spices were liberally added to these ripieni or fillings, an inheritance of medieval culinary customs.

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The plain friable dough that Scappi used to encase his fillings has since given way to the crumblier and sweeter pasta frolla. Essential to obtaining a good frolla is a half fat to flour ratio, the use of cold butter (or other cooking fat) and the thorough combination of these two with a finely ground sugar before adding any eggs. Artusi has three recipes for making it which all match these criteria. Since lard is rather difficult to come across these days (his first and third recipes include lard)[v], I’ve always used his second recipe which is made with butter. The addition of grated lemon zest is my own. Otherwise, everything else about the following crostata di marmellata recipe I owe to the avuncular and eccentric author of Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well.

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Ingredients

  • 250 g flour, sifted
  • 125 g cold butter, chopped into small pieces
  • 110 g caster or icing sugar
  • 1 egg plus 1 egg yolk, lightly beaten (you could use the remaining egg white to brush the lattice for a shinier finish)
  • zest of 1 lemon, grated
  • 250-300 g jam

Method

Place flour, sugar and chopped butter in a large bowl. Using your fingers, rub the butter into the flour and sugar until you have a mixture of fine crumbs and the butter is no longer visible. Add the grated lemon zest. Dust your hands and mix in the beaten egg until you have a smooth and elastic ball of pastry. Cover dough with cling film and leave dough to rest in the fridge for at least half an hour.[vi]

Remove dough from fridge.  On a clean, flour-dusted work surface, roll out about two thirds of the ball to cover a greased and dusted baking dish (I used a dish with a 26 cm diameter and a depth of 3cm). The dough should be about 3mm thick. Use a pastry wheel or knife to remove any overhanging dough. Fill the crostata with jam.  Roll out the remaining dough and, with a pastry wheel or knife, cut long strips with a width of 1.5cm. Place strips in a criss-crossed fashion on top to create the lattice.[vii] If you like, you may wish to try your hand at interweaving the strips like this clever lady here! Bake at 180 degrees Celsius for 30 minutes or until the crostata is golden brown and its crust has begun to pull away from the edges of the baking dish.

[i] Seirass is the name for a delicious Piedmontese variety of ricotta which has creamy, smooth consistency.

[ii] The Italian word for ‘window displays’.

[iii] The Italian word for ‘strips’.

[iv] an archaic word for the organs in an animal’s abdominal cavity. Scappi was a big fan of cooking offal and extremities. Stay tuned for a recipe and some reflections on nose-to-tail eating later on this month!

[v] Despite what many a ‘Mediterranean diet’ guru would have us believe, lard was the most commonly used cooking fat in Italy until the post WWII period. Olive oil was actually used very sparingly and reserved for lean days and periods (such as Lent) and butter was a luxury item.

[vi]Like Artusi, I’d recommend not being in a rush and waiting longer, overnight even!

[vii] I always find I have a little bit of leftover dough with the baking dish I use. Solution: I get my cookie cutters out and make biscuits (there’s usually enough for about four) with whatever remains!

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crostatadimarmellata-3 (2)

 

Friday fish: fried salt cod with polenta and onions

merluzzo con polenta e cipolle-3The day was 5th January 1432. It was approaching mid-morning. The sun had just begun to peak above the horizon. The Venetian merchant Pietro Querini and his crew were on lifeboats. The sailors’ voyage from Crete to Flanders had been cut short by a violent storm in the North Sea, leaving them shipwrecked. Lost at sea for several weeks, they could finally discern land in the brightening distance. Icy winds and snow rendered its appearance less than hospitable, let alone habitable. Querini made a vulgar joke about having reached culi mundi  or the ‘arse end of the world’.

Luckily for the Venetians, the seemingly rear-ended island of Røst[i] turned out to be inhabited. And, over the next few months, they would look on in amazement as the local fishermen beheaded, gutted and dried vast quantities of their catch, gadus morhua (Atlantic cod). Querini was particularly impressed by the colossal hesje (wooden racks) along the shoreline, from which the cod were hung in pairs by their tails to dry. The resulting stockfish,  hard as wood,  retained all the nutrients – protein, vitamins, iron and calcium – from their fresh counterpart. Several centuries previously, this preserved food had sustained the Vikings in their sea voyages from Norway to Iceland, Greenland and Canada. The shipwrecked Venetians, representatives of one of Europe’s most important trading and economic powers of the era, had discovered a valuable new commodity.

In 1497, another plentiful source of Atlantic cod was ‘discovered’ on the banks of Newfoundland. The Lofoten Islanders’ method of preservation of drying, however, did not suit the damp and misty conditions of this terranova.  When cheap salt from France, Spain and Portugal became available to the northern European seafaring nations, another method of preservation, salting, was adopted.

merluzzo con polenta e cipolle

Church-imposed giorni di magro or ‘lean days’ – all Fridays, the forty day period of Lent and other important days of religious observance – meant that meat consumption was effectively forbidden for almost half the year. Fish was the permitted substitute for meat. Consequently, there was great demand from the Italian peninsula and islands for cheap, long-lasting stoccafisso (stockfish) and baccalà (salt cod). Italians have become less strict about observing ‘lean’ days and Lent but a Good Friday meal would still be unthinkable without a fish (often baccalà or stoccafisso-based) dish. For this reason, that demand for this once precious foodstuff continues.

The Venetian bacalà mantecato and the Messinese pescestocco a ghiotta are some of Italy’s most famous cod-based dishes. Less well-known but not at all less delicious is the Piedmontese fried salt cod dish with polenta and onions[ii] my mother-in-law is fond of making at this time of year. The cooked onions’ pungent yet sweet notes complement the mild flavoured cod perfectly. It’s also one of those rare dishes that allows the humble old onion to be enjoyed as a vegetable in its own right. This venerdi santo[iii], I’m planning on serving it as a main course. Here is a recipe, inspired by hers and Beppe Lodi’s, for making it. Please note that its three components – baccalà, onions, polenta – all need to be prepared separately, so you may want an extra hand or two in the kitchen. Stirring polenta requires an awful lot of elbow work! There is the option of pre-cooked polenta that is ready in five minutes. In my opinion though,  you’ll be sacrificing a lot in taste. Also, you’ll need to do the shopping for this dish a few days before. Salt cod requires 2-3 days of soaking for it to be thoroughly desalinised.

merluzzo con polenta e cipolle-2Ingredients (serves 4-6)

  • 1600 g water
  • 400 g polenta
  • 1 kg salt cod, soaked for 2-3 days with frequent water changes
  • Flour, for coating the cod
  • 500 g onions[iv], sliced
  • Olive oil, for frying
  • Salt

Method

Bring water to boil in a large non-stick saucepan. Add salt and polenta meal in a slow and steady stream. Reduce heat to the minimum and cook polenta for 35-40 minutes, ensuring that you stir often with a wooden spoon.  Once the polenta is cooked, carefully pour it on a large wooden board to serve.

In the meantime,  drain and pat-dry cod with a tea-towel and carefully remove its skin.  Cut it into pieces about measuring 6cm x 3cm. Dip pieces into a bowl with flour, ensuring that are coated all over. Heat a frying pan with olive oil and fry each piece of cod until nice and golden on all sides. Transfer to a plate lined with paper towels.

Finally, heat two tablespoons of olive oil in a large and wide non-stick pan. Add sliced onions and a pinch of salt. Leave to simmer on low-medium heat covered. Check onions every few minutes or so to stir them and check their state and colour. When they are golden brown, add the pieces of fried cod to the pan so they absorb the juices and flavour of the rendered onions.  Leave to simmer together on low heat until polenta is ready. Transfer cod and onions to a serving dish or directly on top of the polenta.

[i] An island located in the Lofoten archipelago, north of the Norwegian mainland.

[ii] Beppe Lodi calls this dish  merluzzo con polenta e cipolle. In Piedmont, the word for fresh cod – merluzzo – is used instead of the term for the preserved type of cod (e.g. baccalà or stoccafisso). In the northeastern regions of Veneto and Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, you will also find that stockfish is referred to as bacalà (with one c) and not stoccafisso, like elsewhere in Italy. Traditionally, Venice’s bacalà mantecato and Vicenza’s bacalà alla vicentina are made with stockfish, NOT salt cod.

[iii] ‘Good Friday’ in Italian.

[iv] I used cipolle bionde or yellow onions, but I don’t see why you can’t use white or red ones either.

merluzzo con polenta e cipolle-5