To say that we Italians are food traditionalists is an understatement. Time and time again we go back to dishes that we have known since we were kids and we still enjoy them immensely. Come Easter and torta pasqualina will appear on very many tables. “Torta pasqualina” translates as Eastertide cake but it is actually a savory pie: layers of a golden, shatteringly flaky olive oil pastry, encasing a substantial filling of chards (biete, in Italian), fresh soft cheese, Parmigiano or pecorino , eggs and marjoram. It is a centuries old dish and one of the highlights of the Italian vegetarian canon – the quintessential spring dish. Continue reading
Castagnaccio is one of the oldest sweet dishes in the Italian repertoire: chestnut flour whisked with water and a little olive oil, a few needles of rosemary for perfume, then baked until it turns into a sort of cake, a true poor people’s dessert in this most basic version. Chestnut flour is sweet and this makes adding sugar to the batter unnecessary. For greater extravagance, you could add pinenuts, walnuts and sultanas.
In Italy, well until the second world war, chestnuts were regarded as an important, cheap but nutritious food for a large section of the population – if you were poor, meat was an occasional luxury and beans and chestnuts were more likely to be part of your diet.
Truth be told, the castagnaccio you see in most bakeries now can be the stuff of nightmares: stodgy, to say the least, Continue reading
All over the world the word “pizza” usually refers to a slab of hot bread dough topped with savoury bits and pieces. However, in Italian cookery, and particularly in Southern Italian cookery, “Pizza” also means “pie”: one can talk of a “pizza di ricotta”, for instance, a sweet ricotta pie or of a “pizza di scarola”, a savoury pie with an escarole filling. One of the best of these pizza-pies is “pizza rustica”, Continue reading
Ricotta is for me strongly associated with Easter and Spring cooking in general: it plays a crucial roles in beloved seasonal dishes, from Ligurian Torta Pasqualina (when the original, more appropriate Ligurian cheese prescinseua cannot be found outside Liguria – that is always!), to Neapolitan ricotta and wheat tart, called pastiera, spinach or nettle ravioli and the endless sweet or savoury cakes and pies that can be found all over Italy at this time of the year, pizza rustica, fiadone abruzzese, pizza di ricotta.
Artisanal ricotta is one of the ingredients I miss most from Italy. I have never tasted here in the UK a ricotta, either made here or imported, that is as good as the one I can have almost anywhere in Italy. It makes sense: fresh ricotta (that has not undergone any pasteurization) is a fragile beauty and it does not travel well. As a consequence what we get here is generally the long-life stuff; local cheesemakers simply do not have the knowledge or the inclination to learn.
So, for me, homemade ricotta it has to be. Well… almost! Continue reading
A simple and tasty recipe from Puglia, the heel of Italy: wheat berries boiled till al dente and then simmered in a cherry tomato sauce, with garlic, chilly pepper and parsley. Straightforward and delicious. I prefer using semi-polished berries here, the ones that have had the outer, inedible husk removed but with some of the bran still attached. I also tried cooking with whole grain berries in the past I have always found them boring and far too chewy. If you soak the berries the night before, the cooking time will be very short indeed. Continue reading