Pan di mort (All Souls spiced chocolate biscuits from Lombardy)

Italian spiced chocolate biscuits
Italian spiced chocolate biscuits

Here’s another traditional recipe from Lombardy that honours I morti, All Souls. Pan di mort (literally “dead people’s bread”) are quintessential Lombardy biscuits that are sold in bakeries between the end of October and the first week in November. They are diamond-shaped, chocolatey, spicy biscuits, full of nuts and candied citrus peels, quite chewy but not crunchy. Continue reading

L’insalata di pomodoro perfetta – the perfect tomato salad

tomato salad

 

The perfect tomato salad does not exist, of course. It is one of those highly personal things even if there are a few unbreakable rules. However, I thought it would be a nice idea to share with you what the great Neapolitan food writer Jeanne Carola Francesconi, the author of one of the grandest Italian cookery books La Cucina Napoletana (1963), says about tomato salad.This is my translation.

“Fresh, dewy, savoury, tomato salad is the symbol of summer. One likes it at first sight, with its warm colours that speak of the sun and with its juices that speak of the richness of the earth.

You must know how to make it properly though: the tomatoes will be more or less green, according to taste, or almost as ripe as those used to make tomato sauce. And, again according to taste, they will be large and round, with or without seeds, or pear shaped. They will always be delicious, but they must be dressed judiciously: plenty of salt,  a lot of oil and no vinegar, god forbid – you would spoil them.

From this fresh base, you will always be able to vary flavours, starting from garlic, almost de rigueur, onion and parsley (only if you do not have other herbs). Basil will add freshness, with its tender, young leaves; origano will accentuate the flavour; a few celery stalks, with their leaves, will make a nice contrast. Black olives from Gaeta,  capers and anchovies will make it piquant, tuna preserved in oil will marry with it beautifully and freselle (hard rusks) from a dark country bread will absorb the juices and will make it more substantial. You can add one, two or three of these ingredients or even all of them – the salad will become a real meal, nourishing and tantalising.

On summer evenings, when the heat is oppressive and you are happily tired, drunk from a day of sea and sun, still immersed in that magic enchantment to where nature has transported you, a tomato salad, with its ingenuity, its juices, its fragrance, will be the natural quiet epilogue to those most recent sensations.”

 

Pomodori col riso romano-londinesi (con cannella)- Roasted tomatoes stuffed with rice, herbs and cinnamon, from Rome and London

This is a classic recipe from Rome and one which can be successfully replicated also here in the UK, where good tomatoes are rare. However, in order to coax as much flavour as possible from the often lustreless UK, tomatoes, I have employed few tricks- a long, slow roasting, some flavour enhancers and careful seasoning.

After comparing few sources (Carla Tomasi and Rachel Roddy and Frank Fariello and Domenica Marchetti), I went back to the book that is considered one of the grand books on Italian regional cooking: La Cucina Romana, by Ada Boni (1928). Most recipes for pomodori col riso are similar, Ada Boni only however mentions “cinnamon”: adding a pinch of cinnamon to each tomato, gives this humble dish an exotic, fuller taste, much appreciated.

This is what I did;

Slice off the tops of the tomatoes and scoop out as much pulp as possible and the seeds, leaving an empty shell that is about 2 cm thick.
Cut up any large-ish piece of pulp: by the end you should be left with a mix that is brothy and full of rice-grain size pieces of tomato pulp (what u see in the picture is the tomato pulp pieces still uncut). Add a couple of teaspoons of tomato paste,  mix well and one and a half tablespoon risotto rice per tomato.

Dress the mix with salt, pepper, a pinch of sugar, a glug of oil, chopped parsley (maybe with some chopped mint leaves) and finely chopped garlic: as usual, authentic Italian cooking is discreet with garlic and I used only one fat clove for 5 large beefsteak tomatoes .

Carefully  and thoroughly, sprinkle the inside of each tomatoe with salt, pepper, a pinch of sugar and a pinch of cinnamon. Dribble a little olive oil too  (1 teaspoon per tomato).

Place the tomatoes in a large oven dish, already oiled and splashed with water. Fill the tomatoes, making sure to distribute the rice evenly (it helps if you give a good stir to the mix each time you fill a tomato) cover them with their lids, drizzle some more oil all over and bake at 170 C for a couple of hours. You want a long and slow bake to concentrate the tomato flavour and also to avoid splitting the tomato skin, which would happen at higher temperature. I also have a thing  with not properly cooked baked/roasted tomatoes (I hate them): for me a cooked tomato,  must be FULLY COOKED, meltingly tender but still retaining their shape for me. Half cooked tomatoes are disgusting. I pushed the baking to 2.5 hrs once and they were delicious. No, the rice does not overcook, because the temperature is gentle and because it is not swimming in liquid.

Let them rest and eat no warmer than room temperature. In Rome, they sometimes add potatoes, cut into wedges (dressed with oil and salt before going into the pan). If you do this, make sure not to crowd the dish, otherwise the whole lot will steam instead of roasting, so to speak.

 

Sedano al pomodoro – celery braised with tomatoes

braised celery

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Until few yrs ago, I never though much of celery. Of course, it is one of the key ingredients of the classic battuto (generally equal quantities of chopped onions, chopped carrots, chopped celery), the basic of so much Italian cooking (fried in some fat, it becomes soffritto) and it is often served raw in pinzimonio, that is to say with other raw vegetables, to be dipped in the  best olive oil. Apart from this,  edano (celery) was a stranger to me. Moreover, I had always associated celery with the cold months only. Continue reading