Sunday, 27 March 2016

Cakes, Snakes and Tales of the Umbrian Easter Cake. Torta di Pasqua

Ingredients of Torta di Pasqua

Lucia Ceccarelli's Torta di Pasqua 

Luciano and I mixing up the competition

Serena with her Dad

My involvement with Luciano Ceccarelli continually brings me back to Umbria, an understated landlocked region of Italy.  This visit we went to see a new property to host the popular Nose to Tail Charcuterie workshops.  A culinary tale grabbed my curiosity, the rich and playful story of the Umbrian Torta di Pasqua.   Easter week sees the frenzied making of this regional cake erupt over the hills and valleys of Umbria.  Each family with their particular recipe make between ten and twenty cakes; half savoury with cheese, and half sweet with spices and citrus.  This ritual mobilises intergenerational and community participation. However don’t be deceived by the convivial nature of this Eastertide bakeoff; for under the veneer lurks passionate competition, defence of family pride, assertion of culinary expertise wrapped in pleasantry and civility.

The scale of this operation may involve up to 100 eggs to make the giant yeasted dough.  Surveying the proceedings, a seated matriarch presides over the scene, keenly administrating her wisdom.  Approval is conferred upon the girls whose mixing dexterity and prowess implicates the feebleness of others.  Masculine intervention contributes muscle power to mixing the dough. 

The men chip in
Marisa watches keenly

Marisa's own recipe 
Luciano tells me when he was young gathering 100 eggs in early spring would necessitate preserving the eggs in advance of Eastertide.  He recalls how his mother would make a lime cement and cover the eggs, for up to 2 months.

The dose for eggs under lime - 5 litres of water and 2 kilo of lime. Mix & leave 2 days before putting the eggs in the mixture.

Once the dough is made and ready for leavening it is transferred to a greased bowl.  Serena recounts how as a child she loved the job of spreading the pig suet inside the bowl, as she dreamily recalls her younger self pressing the soft unctuous fat.   She tells me competition was understated, yet fierce amongst families to produce the best cakes.  Questions of "how much cheese did they use"? "how well have the cakes risen"?  And, "how was the texture"?  No detail was deemed too small.

From Maundy Thursday the cakes are displayed on family tables along with chocolate eggs. Children longed for the Torta, the elders curbed their temptation with talk of the snake “la biscia” who waited in the cake should it be broken into. An effective deterrent.

The dough needs to be baked and the scale of village participation necessitates a large oven.  The village baker's oven is called upon and duly booked for time and space slots.  This stage of the production sees another layer of competition cloaked in formality and social niceties. Families gather at the bakers with their tins of leavened cake dough.  Engaging with their neighbours, familiar chat can be heard “oooh yours looks so good, oh no! yours is amazing!…...  Oh I don’t know, mine didn’t rise enough”, and so the banter continues, reminiscing on years gone by and what adjustments will be made next year.

Rafaella repositions the cakes 
Rafaella, the village baker is inundated on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday with cake orders in addition to around 100 tins of dough to bake.  Each tin is marked with family initials on the thin aluminium bowls.  She feeds the dough into her ovens whilst monitoring the reputations of the entire hillside village.  Rafaella shuffles the cake's positions around in the oven and gives a running commentary to her assistants, and anyone who is listening, on the likely outcomes of the tortas.  She sighs as someone’s cake clearly needs to use a better yeast or that someone else’s hasn’t browned on top evenly.  She does her utmost for everyone, for in caring over this nursery of cakes, she has her own reputation to nurture. Her stewardship is respected and she has been entrusted in this vital stage of production.  

 The cakes await their owners for collection 
As I was in the shop, a couple of women from a nearby village rated Rafaella’s oven to be a cut above their own village baker’s oven.  She gives her frank opinion on the yeast they are using and mixes up the dough to their absolute specificity.  She makes pleasantries and confers advice whilst managing a couple dozen cakes in the oven   The degree of interaction is surprising, this exchange involves far more than economic transaction; her decades of expertise flow unconditionally into a transmission of knowledge from the master to the seekers of Easter baking success.

Back at the Ceccarelli home, Luciano is on the phone to his sister Lucia, recounting in detail his opinion of how her recipe for the sweet cake had too much yeast and water. A thorough and full debate ensued of what could have been, and what he thinks needs to be changed. Meanwhile,  he flicks through his Facebook feed, images of Torta di Pasqua's jostle proudly amongst his Umbrian friends and relations who engage with vivacious commentary, advice and praise. 

These cakes mediate a great deal of family pride and assertion of culinary prowess.  Of course one is suitably magnanimous to their neighbours, whose cakes have not risen robustly with reassurances that the flavour is what really counts after all.  But, the Ceccarelli's tell me when all goes well with Torta, a discreet punching the air and standing just that much taller is not unheard of.

Long live the cakes that remake social cohesion disguised in soulful competition.  It makes the world a sweeter and more savoury place.  

Polpo - Drunken squid

Montelione Passion Parade

Torta di Pasqua con Pecorino 

Courtesy of the Ceccarelli family Perfected by his sister Lucia Ceccarelli

800g flour
100ml olive oil
140gm Pecorino grated
130gm sliced Parmesan
130gm grated Parmesan
15gm salt
3gm ground black pepper
4 eggs
Yeast according to 800g flour (usually 1.5 tsp dried yeast)
10 whole cloves boiled in 300ml of water
1/2 nutmeg grated fine.

18cm round baking tin
Oil to grease the baking tin
  1. Preheat oven to 180 C.
  2. Mix dry ingredients.
  3. Add wet ingredients and kneed well until elastic and smooth.
  4. Add to oiled baking tin.
  5. 2-3 hours rising.
  6. Bake one hour until golden and cooked in the middle.

Torta Di Pasqua Dolce Note! this needs 10-12 hours

1 kg flour 
100ml olive oil
4 eggs
300 g sugar
250 ml milk
50 g yeast mixed with 250 ml water or dried yeast according to 1 kg flour
80-100 ml almond liquor
50g cinnamon essence
3 tsp vanilla essence
Pinch cinnamon powder
Zest of 1 1/2 lemons
Zest of 2 oranges 

  1. Mix dry ingredients.
  2. Add wet ingredients and mix well.  This is a wetter dough.
  3. Add to oiled baking tin.
  4. 10-12 hours rising.
  5. Preheat oven to 180 C.
  6. Bake one hour until golden and cooked in the middle

Sunday, 14 September 2014

The Story of the Chicken of the Wood

I was so happy to find this beautiful 2 kilo bracket of chicken of the wood, or sulphur shelf as it is sometimes known.  My good friend and mushroom expert Mathew Rooney, one half of The Mushroom Table reassuringly confirmed my sighting as the chicken.  Why this giant bracket mushroom is called chicken is only too apparent both in flavour and texture.  As I pondered what to cook, whilst marvelling at my fortuitous find, two dishes quickly sprang to mind. Goulash and a 'chicken' pie.  Rene Redzepi of Noma, eulogised over this mushroom on Dessert Island Disks (8 minutes in), contending that Chicken of the Wood was more rarefied and revered an ingredient than caviar.  For the two week window in which it makes its appearance is known only to 3 foragers in Denmark. 

Freshly harvested and flash fried strips of chicken

Mushroom Matt at work chopping the chicken flesh

Hen in the wood - the 'dark meat' mushroom equivalent

I invited Matthew to join me for a cook up and to glean any mushroom gems.  I was not disappointed; Chicken of the Wood, he tells me can be sliced and dried out, then burned to repel mosquitos.  

Chicken Pie

Matthew advised one of the main pitfalls of this mushroom is the speed at which it can dry out, leaving the chicken 'chalky'.  It is essential to nourish your dish with copious amounts of fat or oil.  In the case of this dish I sautéd the chicken in buttery olive oil with abandon, which was absorbed astonishingly fast.  The raw chicken has a strong lemon flavour, which begs for the addition of lemon juice and rind to enhance its natural citrusy tones.  Although I didn't have my favourite herb, tarragon in, it became apparent that a lemon & tarragon fricassé would be the way to go with this mushroom.  The Hen of Wood (pictured above) was a foraged addition which Matthew brought.  This mushroom, which looks like the feathers of a chicken has the flavour and texture of the dark meat.
  • 75ml olive oil and 50gm butter
  • 1 onion chopped 
  • 1 fat clove of garlic
  • 1 leek washed and sliced
  • 500g thereabouts of chicken of the wood
  • 200g hen in the wood brushed of any dust and shredded
  • 25g flour
  • a good splash of sherry
  • 100ml chicken stock
  • 1 lemon juiced and grated rind
  • a good bunch of parsley chopped
  • 50ml double cream
  • pastry for the lid
  • beaten egg for the baste
  1. Fry the onion in the olive oil and butter, once soft and transparent, add the garlic. 
  2. When the aroma of garlic is released add the leeks and chicken, stir fry for about 4-5 minutes.
  3. Add the shredded hen meat, stir fry for about 4 minutes.
  4. Sprinkle the flour on and cook for 1 minute.
  5. Add the Sherry or wine and allow to evaporate, followed by the chicken stock and mix well.
  6. Allow to cook for about 15 minutes, then stir in the cream and parsley.
  7. Pile into a pie dish and cover with a sheet of puff pastry, paint the top with egg wash
  8. Bake in oven for about 20-25 minutes until the pastry is golden.

Chicken Goulash

The meatiness of mushrooms makes for a hearty goulash and an easy choice.  A rich tomato sauce, laced with piquancy of smokey paprika is a welcome autumn dish.


  • 75ml olive oil and 50gm butter
  • 1 onion chopped 
  • 1 fat clove of garlic
  • 2 stalks of celery chopped finely
  • 500g thereabouts of chicken of the wood
  • 2 cans of chopped tomato
  • 1 tablespoon tomato purée   
  • 1 tablespoon best quality smoked paprika
  • Juice of half a lemon
  1. Fry the onion and celery in the olive oil and butter, once soft and transparent, add the garlic. 
  2. When the aroma of garlic is released add the chicken, stir fry for about 4-5 minutes
  3. Add the paprika and coat the contents of the pan well, allow the aroma to be smelt, then add the chopped tomatoes and tomato purée.
  4. Bring to the boil and allow to simmer for 30 minutes.
  5. Add lemon juice & serve.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

A Glut of Courgettes? 10 ways to Devour Them Deliciously

I love courgettes!  Every year I hear about the gluts of courgettes and the ensuing dilemmas of what to do with them.  I buy them constantly all through the summer and serve them from their first appearance in early summer into the autumn in various guises.  

It's easy to see a theme running through the series of courgette recipes in this post.  My fairly consistent recycling of onion, salty cheese, often tomatoes, lemon, nuts and herbs in support of the star ingredient courgettes are rehashed into different shapes and guises, mostly either fried or baked.  Although I didn't include bacon amongst these ideas, this is a wonderful complement and one I often use. The idea I wish to share is that with a very simple range of ingredients there are endless ways to use these prolific fruits of the squash family imaginatively and deliciously.

These 10 recipes are the product of improvising, and I would urge you to consider any of the ingredients suggested can be swapped depending on what cheese, herbs, nuts or any other ingredients you have.  

There are some basic considerations with courgettes. The smaller they are, the more flavourful and sweet their flavour. The bigger ones have more water and less flavour.  Therefore, if you have a range of sizes, let this be the first consideration in deciding what to cook.

The size of courgette recommended for each dish is indicated at the start of each recipe.

1. Courgette ribbon salad with hemp oil, lemon & pink peppercorn dressing

Medium and small courgettes

This pretty salad is met with surprise. The ribbons can be made with a vegetable peeler. First take one strip off the courgette and discard, do the same on the opposite side and discard.  Next place the peeler directly over the empty strip and peel away over the same spot.  The ribbons will have a green stripe along each side. Stop when you reach the soft seedy centre. At this point turn over and repeat, shaving the ribbons on the other side until you reach the centre. Discard the seeds.  

The dressing is hemp oil with lemon juice, salt & pepper with some crushed pink peppercorns and fresh dill folded through it.  Pink peppercorns are a heady aromatic spice with a subtle note of rose which adds mild heat and a delicate floral fragrance.

2. Courgette & goat cheese muffins

Large and medium courgettes

This is a summer delight and works beautifully when served with a light summer soup or part of a sharing platter.
  • 50ml oil (olive or rapeseed)
  • 50ml white wine or milk
  • 2 eggs
  • 200gm grated courgettes
  • 100gm goat cheese crumbled
  • 100gm self raising flour, or plain flour with 1 tsp baking powder
  • Handful of mint
Preheat oven to 190C. (375F gas mark 5)
  1. Mix the oil, wine and eggs and beat well.
  2. Fold in the courgettes and cheese.
  3. Add the flour and seasoning plus herbs
  4. Bake in muffin cases or a loaf tin for about 15-20 minutes until the middle is firm. If baking a loaf, obviously longer. You do know what to do, you know you do......
  5. When cooked allow to cool slightly and best served right there and then.  They keep in an air tight container for a few days. Nicer if warmed through.

3. Courgette, Pea & Cheddar Quiche

Large and medium courgettes

Everyone loves a homemade tart. Super feel good when making this one.

My pastry recipe is one that has produced consistently good results for 20 years, or buy some shop bought pastry if time or inclination is lacking.  
  • 300gm grated courgettes
  • 200gm grated Cheddar cheese (or any cheese you have)
  • 1 cup (thereabouts, it doesn't really matter) of frozen peas
  • 4 sliced spring onion, or 1 small red onion
  • A handful of mint leaves chopped
  • 6 eggs 
  • 300ml double cream
  • S & P
  1. Pre heat oven to 190 C. Roll out pastry to fit a 25cm fluted quiche tin or as I did in10cm fluted individual cases. Chill the pastry lined case and then blind bake for 10 minutes.
  2. Mix the grated and chopped stuff (1st 5 ingredients in list above).  Beat the cream, eggs and seasoning and mix the grated and chopped stuff.
  3. Pour into the blind baked pastry case and cook in the preheated oven for hmmmm ..... about 25 minutes.  
  4. Again you know what to do.... press the middle of the quiche and does it feel firm? Yes, then it's ready. No, and put it back for another 5 minutes. Is it browning too quick? Turn the oven down.
  5. Allow to cool for 15 - 20 minutes and serve with a salad. 

4. Courgette Fritters

Large and medium courgettes

This is one of my first fast food ready meals, which I make with just about anything grated or chopped finely. Here it works beautifully with courgettes and is made in 12 minutes start to finish.  I use gram flour (chickpea flour) which is gluten free. If you don't have gram flour, replace with half the amount of plain wheat flour and one egg and do not add water.

Served in this picture with roasted pink, yellow and red beetroot and tomato salsa with herby yogurt dip.
  • 1 large courgette
  • Half a red onion or spring onions
  • 100gm gram flour
  • 1tsp chilli powder (optional)
  • 1 small handful of coriander or mint or both
  • Finely grated lemon rind (optional)
  • About 100ml water but depends, depends, depends.
  • Rapeseed or sunflower oil.
Yogurt & herb cucumber dip
  • 200ml natural yogurt
  • Half a cucumber grated
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • Handful of mint
  • Handful of dill
  • Salt and pepper

  1. Add the gram flour, chilli, grated lemon rind, salt and pepper
  2. Mix very well and add water until you have a paste.
  3. Add the herbs.
  4. Heat a liberal amount of oil until fairly hot and fry a dessert spoonful of the mixture at a time.
  5. DO NOT HASSLE the fritters! Resist poking and annoying them as they fry, no matter how tempting.  Leave 'till golden and crunchy and then turn. 
  6. Drain on kitchen paper.
  7. Serve with a yogurt and herb dip. The recipe is the list of ingredients combined into a glorious fragrant mix. AND lemon wedges.

5. Stuffed Courgettes

Large and medium courgettes

I recommend being improvisational when it comes to stuffing courgettes. Also good method for using up the larger courgettes, along with any bits and pieces knocking around. Try to simply mix a basic combination of some onions for sweetness and base flavour, with nuts & cheese and, or bacon for texture, whilst building the flavour by adding sweet and saltiness. Adding a tomato sauce and serving potato wedges will make a vegetarian dish in its own right. Perfect as a side with soup for a light meal or to make a simple meat or fish dish more special.

This serves 4 as a side or 2 as a main
  • 4 large courgettes 
  • 1 medium red onion finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic crushed to a paste
  • 2 tomatoes finely chopped.
  • 60gm chopped roasted hazelnuts
  • 100gm crumbled feta cheese
  • Good handful of mixed fresh herbs (parsley, mint, dill), chop finely
  • 2 tablespoons of breadcrumbs
  • 1 tablespoons of Parmesan cheese to garnish
  • 2 tablespoons of olive oil
  1. Cut the courgette in half lengthways. Scrape out the seeds and discard. Carefully hollow out some flesh to make a channel along its length. Chop the flesh and reserve.
  2. Place the hollowed out courgette flesh side down on a baking sheet and brush with olive oil, bake for 10 minutes in a hot oven for about 10-12 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, fry the finely chopped onions in some oil for 5 minutes, then add the garlic paste for 1 minute. Add the reserved courgette flesh and chopped tomatoes, cook for a couple of minutes, take off the heat.
  4. Add the nuts, crumbled cheese, herbs and breadcrumbs.
  5. Place this mix into the hollowed out courgette and press firmly down. Sprinkle with Parmesan.
  6. Place in an oven proof dish and cook for 10-15 minutes.
Optional Tomato & Basil Sauce
  • 1 medium onion
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 cloves of garlic crushed to a paste
  • 1 stick of celery 
  • 1 can of chopped tomatoes
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 handful of fresh basil
    1. Fry the chopped onion in olive oil (with bay leaf) for 5 minutes, add the finely chopped celery for 2-3 minutes, add the garlic until the aroma can be smelt.
    2. Add the tomato puree followed by optional glug of white wine and allow to reduce
    3. Add the chopped tinned tomatoes and bring to the boil, then turn to a simmer.
    4. Simmer for 15 minutes.
    5. Season and blitz to a smooth sauce.
    6. Add the basil

    6. Courgette & Halloumi burgers

    Large and medium courgettes

    The saltiness of halloumi is made for courgette. When the halloumi is cooked it makes for a deliciously chewy burger. I have served this for many years as the vegetarian offering at BBQ's, with great success. Served here with tomato salsa and a yellow courgette ribbon salad with hemp oil dressing with pink peppercorns. (see recipe no.1).
    • 200g grated courgettes (1 large courgette or 2 medium)
    • half a bunch of finely sliced spring onions
    • 125g grated halloumi
    • a good handful of mint
    • 2 eggs
    • 75g plain flour
    • finely grated lemon
    • Sunflower oil for shallow frying
    1. Grate the courgette and squeeze out the excess liquid.
    2. Add the grated halloumi, mint and lemon rind, mix very well.
    3. Add the flour and mix the eggs until you have a gloopy mix.
    4. Fry the mixture in hot oil. 
    5. Top tip is to fry in a ring so the burger will be neat.
    6. Garnish with a flower, cut in half lengthways.

    7. Griddled Courgettes

    Medium and small courgettes

    One of the best ways to use your glut up and a must for your raft of courgette side dishes.  Beautiful accompaniment with any main or salad platter.
    • Slice length ways and baste in olive oil.
    • Griddle fry in a hot pan or even better on a cast iron ridged pan.
    • Do not hassle they as they fry. It is better to let them caramelise without moving them.
    • As they come off the griddle, season with good sea salt and lemon juice.

    8. Courgette Parmigiana

    Best for large and medium courgettes

    This is of course a variation of melanzane parmigiana but works just as well.  Also consider making a classic moussaka with the courgettes replacing the more usual aubergine.

    If I had to choose just one recipe in the collection as my favourite, this is it.

    A main dish in its own right. Serve with the best bread you can get your hands on and a crispy green salad.

    This recipe serves 4
    • 4 large courgettes sliced along the length and griddle fry until golden. (see tips in recipe no.7)
    • 1 quantity of tomato sauce (see recipe no.5 above)
    • 1 large ball of mozzarella (350gm)
    • 2 tbsp breadcrumbs
    • 3 tbsp grated Parmesan 
    1. Preheat oven to 190C. 
    2. Place a layer of griddled slices of courgettes on the bottom of an oven proof dish.
    3. Spread a thin layer of tomato sauce over the courgettes, tear some mozzarella and dot over the tomato sauce.
    4. Repeat the previous step twice.
    5. Finish with breadcrumbs and Parmesan sprinkled over the top.
    6. Baked for 25 minutes or until golden on the top.
    Serve with a big green salad and bread.

    9. Courgette & Spelt Soup

    Large and medium courgettes

    This is a sturdy and wholesome summer soup.  All the greens and herbs along with the spelt grains make a hearty light supper.  Served here with small croutons & grated Parmesan. 
    • 2 large courgettes cut into small chunks
    • 2 tbsp olive oil
    • 1 medium onion chopped finely
    • 1 fat clove of garlic crushed to a paste
    • 1 big bay leaf
    • 1 rib of celery (optional, but nice)
    • 1 fat chilli (optional, but very nice)
    • 1 handful of green beans cut in half
    • 1 cup of frozen peas 
    • 1 big handful of parsley, mint and dill (or any variation) chopped finely
    • 75gm spelt grain, well rinsed
    • 300ml chicken stock or veg stock
    • Seasoning
    1. Once all the vegetables are cut up and prepared, start by frying the onions in olive oil until softened and just starting to turn golden, then add the celery and stir fry for a minute. 
    2. Add the garlic, stir until you can smell its aroma, followed by the chopped courgettes and chilli if using.
    3. Stir the courgettes in the unctuous oniony mix until it just begins to colour. Then add the rinsed spelt grain and stir until the grains are coated with the oil.
    4. Add the stock and bring to a simmer, allow to simmer for 15 minutes.
    5. Add the green beans and frozen peas.
    6. Towards the end at the heady mix of freshly chopped herbs and season.

    10. courgette & feta & tomato salad

    Medium and small courgettes

    This is a gorgeous salad, and one I simply never seem to tire of. By griddle frying the courgettes it renders them sweet and caramelised.  Mixed with the salty feta and sharpness of tomato, it makes for a classic summer dish.
    • 4 or 5 small to medium courgettes
    • 2 tbsp olive oil for frying + 1tbsp olive oil for dressing
    • 2 tomatoes
    • 50g feta cheese crumbled
    • 1 tbsp parsley or mint
    • Half a lemon
    • Seasoning
    1. Cut the courgettes into chunks and toss in about 2 tbsps olive oil.
    2. Once lightly tossed in oil fry in a very hot pan without adding any more oil. Allow to turn golden. Do not keep moving the courgettes! They will cook quicker and gain a beautiful colour without being poked about the pan.
    3. Set aside and cut the tomato into chunks.
    4. Add the crumbled feta, tomatoes, griddled courgettes.
    5. Add the olive oil, lemon juice, seasoning and fresh parsley or mint.

    Friday, 8 August 2014

    Summer Fare at the Farmer's Market - Fast Food Post

    Clockwise from top
    Kohlrabi salad - bowl of cherries - beetroot & goat cheese with dill - crostini toasts
    Gazpacho - vegetable kraut - plums  - kale & miso salad in centre

    Getting back from the farmer's market laden with freshly harvested local produce, this simple spread was ready in one hour flat.

    Following the picture above and working clockwise:

    Kohlrabi is a round bulbous root with random shoots.  I like to keep this under appreciated vegetable very simple; keep it raw - peeling, grating and serving.  Note, that as it will brown quickly, add lemon juice.  It's simple presentation improved by adding parsley or any herbs.

    The first thing I did when I returned home was to roast some beetroot in the oven, which renders it's earthy flavour sweet and smooth.  After roasting about an hour, (though these were small beetroot) peel and chop, add crumbled goat cheese and dill and a lacing of olive oil and seasoning.

    The crostini provides a crunchy base for the beetroot and goat cheese; a great way for using up stale bread, sliced thin and baked with a light brushing of rapeseed oil in a medium oven for 10 minutes or so. Just be sure to keep a keen eye as it turns in a flash.

    Gazpacho made with tomatoes, cucumber, red pepper, garlic, chill, olive oil & sherry vinegar, thinned with water. See my Gazpacho recipe here.

    Kale salad with a miso dressing.  How I love the squeaky texture of kale, when it's freshly harvested and booming with vitality.  The metalic taste of kale is tamed with this miso dressing as it renders the robust leaves soft and yielding to this meaty dressing.  You can use a pale yellow miso paste, which is sweeter than the longer fermented darker miso pastes. To make this whopping salad, remove the tough stalks and slice the squeaky fresh leaves very finely.  Mix about a dessert spoon of miso paste with about 2 table spoons of warm water,  top up with hemp oil, lemon juice and seasoning. Toss very well and allow to stand for as long as possible to render the kale soft.

    Wednesday, 14 August 2013

    Tomatillo Salsa & Corn Fritters

    Corn fritters with tomatillo salsa, black bean puree and kohl rabbi 

    At the farmers market this morning I bumped into one of my favourite heroes, Adrian Izzard of Wild Country Organics. These days, he is rarely seen at any of his many farmers market stalls and concentrates on the serious business of farming and producing some of the very best produce in the land.  Farming is anything but an easy choice and working punishingly hard is a given.  Despite 15 years of grind and now relative success, Adrian is still infectiously joyful about the everyday business of growing, harvesting and the complications of being a primary producer.  We spend a good while putting the world to rights and swapping news.  On the stall, the fabulously animated Nathan introduced me to tomatillo, something I've never used.  I made a tomatillo salsa, as these enthusiastic salad merchants recommended.   Tomatillo is like a giant cape gooseberry with a tartness and a texture that resembles more of a tomato and apple combination. As with tomatoes, peaches, mangoes and melon, to name a few, chop finely and add together with some delicate onion family, garlic, chili, oil, lemon and herbs to produce a delicious salsa like creation.  It will virtually always work.

    The sweet corn has just come in and this arrival always lifts my mood.  I made some simple corn fritters and served with the salsa and a grated kohl rabbi with lemon juice and olive oil.  It's worth remembering that kohl rabbi oxidises very quickly once cut, so add an acidulated dressing as quickly as possible.  This is a palate cleansing vegetable which keeps in fridge for a good couple of weeks. Perfect for slicing off a chunk and grating as an unusual & imaginative side.  (add any amount of herbs, dried fruit, nuts).

    Farmers market still life: plum tomatoes, tomatillos, chills and sweet corn

    Fritter mix : Boiled corn, red onion, chill, mint, coriander

    Corn Fritters (for two)

    • 1 corn on the cob
    • half a red onion (or spring onions) finely chopped
    • 1 red chili finely chopped
    • Handful of mint, coriander washed & chopped
    • 2 eggs beaten
    • 50gm flour (I used gluten free)
    • Sunflower oil
    1. Boil the corn until cooked (about 3 minutes) and scrape off the kernels.
    2. Mix together with red onion, herbs, 2 eggs and beat well. Add the flour and season well.
    3. Heat the oil and fry spoons of the mixture until golden. Drain on kitchen paper.

    Tomatillo Salsa

    • 1 plum tomato
    • 2 tomatillos
    • Half a red onion finely chopped 
    • garlic chopped to a paste
    • Coriander
    • Half a lemon juiced
    • Chili 
    • A few glugs olive oil 
    • Salt & pepper
    Chop the tomatoes & tomatillos very fine and mix all other ingredients.  Add oil and season well.

    Sunday, 2 June 2013

    Charcuterie and Nose to Tail Cooking in an Umbrian Mountain Village

    If you had the opportunity for a long week-end in an Umbrian village learning charcuterie from aficionado Luciano Cecccarelli…. would you be able to say no?

    Luciano's welcome lunch -  platters of home cured, dried & preserved meats


    Sausage and Salami making.

    .... Well of course I jumped at the chance, I was a guinea pig for a newly launched charcuterie & nose-to-tail workshop in a sleepy Umbrian mountain village.  Charcuterie is an essential skill in mastering the now fashionable art of nose-to-tail.  When I grew up, offal consumption generally had begun to decline, save for occasional calves or lambs liver and steak and kidney pie.  As an adult, I have struggled to embrace the transformation of all things internal and of the periphery.  So, no matter how zeitgeist, nor gastronomically revered, nor lauded the fifth quarter is, and despite how secret the marinade, or how slow and low the cooking is, the fact is it had been deeply unappealing to me.

    The crunch with this choice is that as a devotee of sustainable food systems, I understand that sweating the assets of the animal’s carcus is a given, and those of us who are a little squeamish need to man up.  I began my journey 'manning up' last Autumn when I attended The Meat Course led by Ruth Tudor, the daughter of a Welsh hill farmer who raised sheep on Snowdonia.  It was inspiring and awareness expanding.  Their creative approach is imaginatively delivered as it tells the story of meat, guiding you on an interactive journey through landscape, animal husbandry, slaughter, butchery, some processing, with much eating and challenging discussion.  The aim of the course is to create a deeper understanding of where our meat comes from and to foster a better connection of how this relationship is symbiotically linked to health of humans and the environment.  

    I continued my journey with Luciano, a deeply generous and hospitable host, who makes you feel at home instantly.  His natural authority and expertise with charcuterie resides in an embedded wisdom, the product of an illustrious culinary & agricultural heritage.  The ghosts of his ancestors are present in channeling the age old art of curing and preserving the harvest.  Luciano learned much of his butchery and charcuterie skill from his father-in-law, a butcher in the mountain village from where they have lived for 5 generations.  I had some memorable conversations with mothers and grandmothers who shared stories of yesteryear; poverty, austerity, blood sausages and secret recipes.  It was a privilege to immerse myself in living history through these older women of the family who bring a vivid sense of lineage to every conversation about food.  All tips and wisdom are preceded with " grandfather said...., my great grandmother made it this way".

    We started off by making “Tuscan salsiccia”,  though this is a regional generalisation we followed Luciano’s own family version of these sausages, which can be eaten fresh or allowed to dry.

    We used lean leg, a salt ratio of 2.5% per kilo, ground black pepper of 1%, approx 4 cloves of garlic and some pig casing.  The casings are rinsed in cold water and chased with vinegar, hung up to drain. The lean meat is put through a fine mincer, thoroughly mixed and pushed into the sausage machine,  Luciano told me his father had made this machine from his own forge.  The whole process is deceptively simple. The salami is the same method, save for the addition of dried fennel flowers, and the meat minced more coarsely and held in a stronger calves casing.  Hung up to dry overnight and then bound with string in the old fashioned way, or more recently, held with a string casing. Rolled in flour and hung in the cellar for 30 days.
    Mincing the meat for sausages

    Hanging up to dry out

    Salami mix - meat, fat, garlic, salt, pepper, red wine

    The traditionally bound salami (left) and the modern string casing (right)
    We took a detour from our sausage making to a German community established 40 years ago, where we met Barbara who hand makes sheeps cheese from her own herd’s raw milk. She works alone from March through to late July processing up to 56 litres of milk per day.  The cheese is lemony fresh. As it ages, it is not unlike a pecorino.  She makes ricotta with the whey, which I ate daily with coffee and sugar or someone's grandmother's cherry jam.

    Separating and cutting the whey

    Moulding the curds

    Ageing room

    Temperature control

    Ricotta with espresso coffee & sugar

    Ricotta with sour cherry preserve

     ‘Coppa’ an Umbrian dish, though often the name we know for air-dried loin, it is a brawn when all is said and done.  This was particularly challenging for me and I had politely declined the brawn at the Meat Course when Nicky, the talented nose to tail cook, had made this for the participants of my week-end in Monmouthshire.  Very simply, you boil the pigs head, tongues, skin, ears and trotters in water for 3 hours, allow to cool and then go through the spoils of this brew, picking the meat out. My inner Home Counties girl, who has not had to eat these peripheral cuts braced herself. All that is picked and deemed edible is mixed thoroughly with a Christmassy selection of flavours, orange and lemon peel, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, all spice and seasoning, then stuffed into a cylindrical muslin cloth,  weighted overnight to squeeze out the excess moisture and then chilled.  The coppa, cuts beautifully; flecks of tongue, ear, skin, scraps of odds and ends, all repackaged and flavoured into a neat slice of speckled mosaic acceptability.  I have clearly stood on the shoulders of my time at the Meat Course, now able to embace this culinary tradition, which previously would have left me declining politely and inwardly shuddering. 

    The pigs head, tongues, skin, ears, trotters - boiled for 3 hours

    Picking, chopping and sorting. 

    The culinary disguise, as citrus peel, spices and seasoning is added & mixed

    Packed into cylindrical muslin moulds

    Weighted overnight

    The next day, the Coppa di Testi is unleashed.....

    The coppa, cuts beautifully; flecks of tongue, ear, skin, scraps and ends, repackaged into a neat slice of speckled mosaic acceptability.  
    Poverty and austerity are in the collective consciousness of the older generation.  Speaking with Luciano’s mother and mother-in-law, their recollections of food shortages are firmly rooted in their memories.  The notion of rural idyl, fecundity and abundance amongst happy, earthy peasants is a picture constructed by marketing campaigners and residing in our imaginings.  The culinary creativity of Italians comes more from their inherent respect of food and making limited food go as far as possible to feed large families, than that of a long gastronomic tradition. 
    This lovely woman, Rina,  ran a butcher's shop with her husband for 40 years.  
    A mine of knowledge, here she shares her sanguinacco recipe (spiced sweet blood sausages)
    An old chocolate box contains all Rina's personal recipes, written in 1970's by her hand
    Rina, showed me the needles used to sew up porchetta. 
    3 generations share stories of food, family and village life.
    Mother Marisa made bread, pasta, gnocchi and has created loving memories of wonderful food for her children and grandchildren.
    Adele was one of 13 children, she recalls life at home was happy.  The landowner was generous. Food was plentiful. 
     Old family heirlooms.  These devices roasted the 'Orza' or barley over the open fire to make the morning hot drink.

     Handmade knives

    This butcher's needle was made from an old umbrella spoke!

    Fegatelli is the Italian expression of ‘Faggots’. The pigs liver is trimmed, seasoned, anointed with fennel and wrapped in caul fat.  Threaded on a skewer with lardo, bay leaves and slices of old bread; this is truly delicious.  The flavours of the fat tone down the strength of the liver, with the bread giving contrasting texture.  I was proud of myself for really enjoying this.

    Seasoning the pigs liver

    Caul fat

    Seasoned liver, wrapped in caul fat
    Threaded on a skewer with lardo, laurel and oil, this truly is a transformation of nature to culture. 

    Porchetta is a dish we all know and I’m glad to be reminded of how impressive this humble dish is.  A 4kg belly of pork will feed 20 people and is a great choice for feeding a crowd economically and with a respectable, but manageable element of culinary prowess.  It can be made ahead of time and is a good cold cut dish.  The belly is butterflied, by simply cutting horizontally and opening the piece of meat, stuffing the open space with fresh fennel fronds, garlic, copious seasoning, rolling up and sewing the roll together.  Cooked up high to start and then low for 2.5-3 hours. Slice and serve, Yummmmmm.

    Butterfly the belly
    Spread with garlic, fennel fronds, seasoning
    Roll it up
      Sew up securely and into a hot oven for 40 minutes, then low oven for 2.5 hours.  Serve hot or cold. Delicious.
    Important note about nitrites....
    Luciano does not use anything other than salt, air and natural microbes as his preserving tools.  It must be noted that the salt he uses, is a one which contains natural nitrites and is different from British salt.  According to my favourite pig mentor, Peter Gott of Sillfield Farm who has spent much time researching the alchemic process of charcuterie and notes that different salts and the airborne microbes in the rural reaches of the Italian mountains will produce different results from our damper and colder climate.  Therefore, for my endeavors in London, I will use nitrites sourced from a sausage maker's supplier Weschenfelder where quality casings and cures are available, along with a traditional and warm Northern service.

    If interested in joining Luciano, please get in touch with me and I will link you up.

    Sights of Montegabbione, Montegiove & Monteleone


    Monteleone, village well.

    One of many lunches