It is very easy, and immensely pleasurable, to fall into the spell of the Mediterranean – the vibrant colours, the shimmering sea, the warmth of its people, the gnarled olive trees, the intoxicating sweetness of its figs, the lusciousness of its vegetables…
When it comes to Italian food then, there is a misconception that it is all olive oil, garlic, basil and tomatoes, so to speak. In fact, at least one third of the Italian peninsula, from the plains of Emilia Romagna up to the Northern Alps, is bathed in butter and lard and cooks much of its food, at least traditionally, “in bianco” – that is to say, without tomatoes.
This homely supper dish, which emanates from the Emilia Romagna repertoire, makes the point.
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
This is a lovely old-fashioned dish worth reviving. Think of a sformato (singular ) as the Italian, more substantial version of a soufflé. Generally, sformati (plural) are made with chopped-up cooked vegetables, eggs (yolks and whites separated, the whites beaten to stiff peaks) and Parmigiano, all bound with a thick béchamel sauce. Continue reading
Erbazzone is a chard tart with an impeccable pedigree. It comes from Reggio Emilia, a charming town in Emilia Romagna, the land of Parmigiano, balsamic vinegar, tortellini, mortadella, prosciutto di Parma, i.e. one of Italy’s culinary heavens. It used to be a typical spring dish (when young, tender chards were available), now it can be prepared almost all year round, because leafy greens seem to be always available (and rather “local” too). I have made erbazzone with spring chards, with older, winter chards, with chards only, with chards and spinach and also with cabbage: it never fails. Continue reading
Italians have a soft spot for torte salate (savoury tarts/pies), particularly now a primavera, at spring time. Torte salate are not extravagant with cream and eggs in the way French quiches are, they tend to be simpler, lighter, casual dishes that lend themselves to endless improvisations and impromptu suppers: some cooked vegetables, a little ricotta and/or a couple of eggs, a generous fistful of parmigiano or pecorino to jazz things up, all enclosed in a thin, crisp, lean pastry, called pasta matta, which literally means “crazy dough”, probably on account of the very little fat that is used to make.
Pasta matta is the poor relative of richer brisè and puff pastry, but I find it more useful in every-day cooking and often better in fact Continue reading