Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Pear and gorgonzola crostoni

....or cheese on toast, Italian style.

This 'crostone' is a decent sized snack, perfect for a light lunch, not to be confused with 'crostini' which are smaller, bite-sized pieces of toasted bread, usually served at aperitif time ('...ini' suffix in Italian indicating something small, '...oni' indicating something big).

The combination of blue cheese and pear is not a new one I know but the two work perfectly together. You get the best results from using a really strong blue cheese in order to offset the sweetness of the pear. I've used gorgonzola here but make sure it's piccante (which is the strong one) rather than the milder gorgonzola dolce. Roquefort and stilton are excellent too.

You need a thick slice of crusty bread for this. I've found that anything with seeds or nuts in really enhances it, my absolute favourite being walnut bread. However, it's good with just a decent wholemeal or white loaf too so just give it a go.

RECIPE - serves 1

a thick slice of crusty bread (see note above)
gorgonzola 'piccante' or similar blue cheese, enough to cover the bread
half a pear, thinly sliced
a drizzle of honey (optional)

Lightly toast the bread on both sides. Slice the cheese, not too thinly, and cover the toasted bread with it. Put it under a hot grill until bubbling. Top with the pear slices and drizzle with honey.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Pollo alla Cacciatora

This 'hunter-style' chicken dish originally comes from Tuscany but is popular all over Italy. As with any classic dish, every family has their own way of making it but the variations are usually minimal, an extra ingredient here, a different cooking method there. When I see this dish abroad, it sometimes seems to veer so far from the original that it is almost unrecognisable.

The recipe below is a standard one; if you wish, you can add some pancetta or maybe a few mushrooms to it. Just don't get too carried away.

RECIPE - serves 4

1 chicken, jointed (or 8 pieces)
1 onion
2 carrots
3 sticks celery
1 clove garlic
1 glass red wine
a few sprigs of rosemary
400g tin chopped tomatoes
olive oil
a handful of fresh parsley, chopped

Finely chop the onion, carrots, celery and garlic (or whizz together in a food processor for a few seconds). Heat a little olive oil in a large frying pan (with lid) and add the vegetables. Cook over a low heat until soft, being careful not to let them brown. Remove to a plate.

Add a little more oil to the pan and brown the chicken pieces on all sides, over a high heat. When the pieces are golden brown, return the vegetables to the pan, add the rosemary and pour the wine in.

Let the wine bubble up for a few minutes, then add the tomatoes and some salt and pepper and bring to the boil. Turn the heat down, cover with a lid and simmer over a medium heat for about 30-40 mins, or until the chicken is tender and cooked through. Give everything a gentle stir from time to time so that it doesn't burn on the bottom and add a little water if it seems to be getting too dry.

When the chicken is ready, sprinkle the parsley over and serve with mashed potatoes or soft polenta.


Sunday, 20 May 2012

Pasta with tomatoes and mushrooms

This is an easy mid-week pasta, good for vegetarians or if you're trying to cut down on meat.

You can use any short pasta shape. My favourite is mezze penne (literally half penne); they're the same thickness as regular penne but about half the length. I just love them because they seem to work with all kinds of sauces and they make perfect little mouthfuls. The only problem is that we cannot find them in the UK (or at least not round here) so we come back from trips to Italy with our luggage and pockets stuffed with packets of De Cecco mezze penne, along with huge hunks of parmesan, coffee and slabs of prosciutto.


Serves 3-4

350g pasta
250g chestnut mushrooms, roughly chopped
half an onion or one shallot, very finely chopped
400g tin chopped tomatoes
a pinch of chilli flakes, optional
extra virgin olive oil

Cook the pasta in a large pan of boiling, salted water.

While the pasta is cooking, heat some olive oil in a large frying pan and fry the mushrooms over a high heat, stirring frequently, until the mushrooms have lost their liquid and become golden brown.

At the same time, in a separate frying pan, heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and cook the onion gently until soft and translucent. Add the tomatoes and chilli if using. Season to taste and continue cooking for about 5 mins.

Add the mushrooms to the tomato sauce and mix thoroughly.

When the pasta is al dente, drain well and tip into the tomato and mushroom sauce. Mix everything together and serve with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and a grating of fresh parmesan.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Bresaola, rocket and parmesan salad

Bresaola is cured beef fillet, produced in the Lombardy alps. After being cured in salt, it is air-dried for several months, during which time it turns a dark red colour.

It makes a delicious summery salad, perfect for a light lunch or an effort-free starter.

RECIPE - serves 2 as a light lunch or 4 as a starter

150g bresaola
a handful of rocket
parmesan shavings
half a lemon
extra virgin olive oil

Make parmesan shavings by using a vegetable peeler (a Y-shaped one works best for this).

Arrange the bresaola slices on individual plates or one big serving platter. Tear the rocket leaves and scatter over, followed by a handful of the parmesan shavings.

Just before serving, squeeze over the lemon and finish with a good drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Pitta di patate - Puglian potato pie

GL's mother is from the Salento area of Puglia, right in the heel of the boot that is Italy. It's a place of vivid colours, from the crystal-clear turquoise seas to the verdant green of the pine forests and the rich red fertile soil. It is this soil that gives such an abundance of vegetables and these form the basis of many of the regional specialities. It's considered cucina povera in Italy, peasant food, but I would happily eat it every day. If you're lucky enough to go there, always order the antipasti della casa; one of ours comprised: stuffed baked tomatoes, minted potato croquettes, fava bean purée, swordfish carpaccio, little fritters flavoured with chilli, tomatoes and black olives, squares of artichoke frittata, pitta di patate (recipe below)...there was more, and all of it delicious but I'm getting too hungry to finish the list.

Pitta di patate is basically a mixture of tomatoes, onions, capers, chilli and olives sandwiched between two layers of mashed potato. It doesn't sound particularly appetising described in that way but just try it, you'll see. You can serve this in the traditional Puglian way as part of a bountiful antipasto, good if you've got a lot of people to feed, or I sometimes serve a square of it as a starter by itself. It's also good as a side dish. It can be prepared the day before and cooked when you want it. Not only does this make it easier if you've got people coming to eat, it actually tastes better when it's had a day or two for the flavours to settle. 


1 kg potatoes
4 onions
a handful of capers
200g black olives, roughly chopped
500g passata
1 cup freshly grated parmesan
1 egg
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
dried chilli flakes

Peel the potatoes, cut them into even sized pieces and boil until soft. 

While the potatoes are cooking, slice the onions thinly, heat the olive oil in a large frying pan and cook the onions gently until soft. Next, add the olives, capers, a pinch of the chilli flakes and the passata. Mix thoroughly and continue cooking for about 5 mins.

When the potatoes are cooked, drain them well and mash them together with the egg and the parmesan. The mixture should be nice and smooth, without any lumps.

In an ovenproof dish, grease with a little oil, then spread half the potatoes on the base. Pour the tomato mixture on top, then cover with the remaining potatoes, making sure that the filling is completely covered. Smooth the surface and sprinkle over a handful or two of breadcrumbs and drizzle over some olive oil.

At this point, you can leave it for a day or two in the fridge if you wish. To cook, place in a hot oven (200°C) for about 30 mins or until the top is golden brown.

In Puglia, this is eaten warm, not hot but I'll leave that decision up to you. It even tastes good cold too.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Baked pasta with mozzarella, tomatoes and basil

I've been making this baked pasta dish regularly for years although I do tweak the recipe from time to time. This is my current favourite but there are different versions of this eaten all over central and southern Italy. It's simple Italian cooking at its best, using few ingredients and no fancy techniques to produce a delicious, crowd-pleasing meal. It can be prepared in advance so it's extremely useful for feeding large groups of people; indeed, in Italy it often features as part of a celebratory meal.

I usually use penne but you can use whatever shape of short pasta you like.

RECIPE - serves 4

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
600g passata or chopped tinned tomatoes
2 balls mozzarella, roughly chopped
bunch of fresh basil
freshly grated parmesan
400g penne

Cook the pasta in the usual way, in a large pan of salted, boiling water.

While the pasta is cooking, heat the olive oil in a saucepan and add the passata. Add salt and pepper and simmer gently for a few minutes; you only really want the sauce to heat through, it shouldn't be reduced at all. Remove from the heat and stir in the fresh basil leaves, roughly torn.

When the pasta is 'al dente', drain it and mix with the tomato sauce, the chopped mozzarella and a good handful of grated parmesan.

Toss it all thoroughly and put in an ovenproof dish. Cover with another generous grating of fresh parmesan.

At this stage, you can either cook it straight away in a pre-heated hot oven (200°C) for about  20 mins or you can keep it in the fridge for up to a day and cook it just before serving. In the latter case, it will need about 30 mins in the oven. When it's ready it should be golden, crispy and bubbling.