Giri assassunati ovvero bietole ripassate con pomodoro, aglio e peperoncino alla siciliana (Sicilian chards with tomatoes, garlic and peperoncino)

Sicilian chards in tomato sauce
Sicilian cooking is not just opulence and extravagance. This dish of chards  with tomatoes, garlic and peperoncino (chili pepper) is a good example of cucina povera:  a handful of a few basic, cheap ingredients delivers a hugely satisfying contorno di verdura (vegetable side dish).  “Giri” is how chards are named in the dialect of Palermo and “Assassunare” derives from the French “Assaisonner” which means “to season”: in Sicilian culinary terms when something has been sautéed  in oil and garlic, to get impregnated with that lovely flavor,  they say it has been “assassunatu”.

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Zaeti (polenta and raisin biscuits from Veneto)

Zaeti (polenta biscuits)
Zaeti (polenta biscuits)

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Zaeti is Veneto dialect for the Italian gialletti, literally “the little yellow ones”. They are buttery, crumbly polenta (maize or cornmeal) biscuits, plump with raisins and you will spot them in patisseries and bakeries in Venice, Padua and other Veneto towns.
There are many versions, more or less rich, but they all share a charming culinary humbleness, which is one of the key marks of genuine Italian cooking.  Continue reading

Paparot (Polenta and spinach soup from Friuli Venezia Giulia)

Paparot - Spinach and polenta soup
Paparot – Spinach and polenta soup

“Paparot”: This must be the most charming name for a dish – a substantial, garlicky soup from Friuli Venezia Giulia: spinach, corn/maize flour and sausage meat. It is one of those dishes where the final result is far greater than the list of its ingredients might suggest. The spinach is first cooked and chopped, then it is added to a base of lardo (or pancetta or butter), garlic and/or sausage meat. When the spinach has absorbed all these lovely, porky flavours (in Italian cookery terms, we call this all-important step insaporire, which translates as “to make tasty”), corn or maize flour is added and then water (or broth, if you have it). The soup is then cooked for a good hour. It’s quite basic, as you can see, and not much to look at, perhaps, but the flavour is very good, if you like this kind of rustic, elementary food.  Continue reading

Pàn de mèj (Elderflower and polenta sweet buns from Milan)

It is elderflower time now in England: on a sunny day if you come across elderflower bushes, you are hit by their unmistakable, intensely floral, sweet smell. Sambuco (elderflower) is the star ingredient of these very old, crumbly, perfumed Milanese buns, centuries ago  made with millet flour, later with corn (polenta) flour.  Traditionally, in Milan until the post First World War years, pàn de mèj buns were eaten on the 23rd April, St George’s day, the patron saint of lattai, milkmen. On that day, lattai used to offer single cream to their customers,  knowing that they would later on customarily pour it over the pàn de mèj . Continue reading