Vegetarian impromptu: avocado amuse-bouche and warm potato peperonata

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A sunny Sunday in London is a gift, particularly for an Italian guy. And sun makes you want to eat simple, colourful food. The kitchen was pretty much empty, so this happened. The avocado helped keeping the stomach busy while I was preparing the potato peperonata for main course.

First, I cut in half an avocado and dressed with salt, oil, and three drops of balsamic vinegar. I like to eat it off its skin with a spoon–apologies to Pixar’s Wall-e fans, no robot was harmed in feeding this human…

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This simplest amuse-bouche gave me time and energy to see what else could be done with the few ingredients left in the kitchen. I found a few new potatoes and three red peppers, a couple of almond flakes (leftovers from the courgette pesto risotto), and I always have some Parmigiano-Reggiano in my fridge. Enough to prepare a lighter version of peperonata.

Originally, this Sicilian dish was a simple sauté mix of peppers cooked with onions and tomato sauce, something you would have had with bread pretty much, and nothing else. It is a dish that then started to be used on the side of meat and even as a pasta sauce, but its humble origins confirm it was meant to be eaten alone, till you were stuffed. This version is stripped of the heavier base and finds potatoes as a good substitute for the bread. I cooked it in the oven in a little more than half hour.

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Potato peperonata (serves 2)

500 g new potatoes
3 red peppers
20 g Parmigiano-Reggiano
a few almond flakes
2 tbsp oil

Start washing, drying, and cutting the peppers. Lay the pepper slices on an over tray lined with foil, add some salt on the peppers, and leave in hot oven on grill (240°C/gas 9) for about 6-7 minutes. They will lose some water and get a little firmer.

Meanwhile, wash, dry, and cut potatoes. Lay them cut-face up and add a pinch of salt. Take the peppers out of the oven, add the potatoes, and mix all together with the oil.

Place the tray in hot oven at 220°C/gas 7 for about 30 minutes. You can give the vegetables a quick toss during their cooking, but keep the oven closed and hot all the time.

Serve with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and flaked almonds. Eat it hot, warm, or even cold. And remember to enjoy the sun!

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by Max

Cannelloni with aubergine and ricotta

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Fresh pasta is one of the easiest dish to prepare in the kitchen, yet too often dismissed as elaborate, time consuming, and messy. In reality, all you need is flour, eggs, and the will to prepare it. Fresh pasta opens really many options for food. You can prepare traditional basic dishes such as lasagne or tagliatelle, or you can venture out into more creative stuffed pasta types, such as ravioli, tortellini, caramelle (pasta candies), or baskets. I chose cannelloni for today’s meal because I had some aubergine to use and because I felt a bit nostalgic.

Cannelloni to me means tradition, home, simplicity. Close your eyes and think of a wooden table lightly covered by flour. Now, feel that coarse, grainy surface and look outside to see a warm, late morning. You are in my auntie’s kitchen, in Bologna; it is a small flat in the city, but the little garden in front of the building is enough to relieve you from any wish to be in the quiet countryside. She walks in, holding a bag of flour and a few eggs, makes a little white mound with a well in the middle–we call it fontana, fountain–and cracks two or three eggs in it. Then it’s like finger finesse: you see one hand first mixing the ingredients slowly and in no time both hands are working together with the mix ready to be kneaded.

Every time I sit there and watch, I start asking her silly questions, like a little kid wondering about the secret of a magic trick, but it’s all there in front of me. “Just work the dough for a ten minutes and then set it aside for half hour, well covered”, she says. The next step will be the rolling pin. In the meantime, you can choose what you want to eat and make the stuffing or the sauce ready.

Cannelloni are one of the simplest, yet most refined uses of fresh pasta. I genuinely love them. It is not my favourite meal, but I have a huge crush on them and there is nothing I can do about it, but eating them. If regularly, even better.

A similar addiction struck the Italian poet Gabriele d’Annunzio, who was indeed a modern gourmand ante litteram. In his energetic and passionate life made of military stiffness and hedonistic pliability, living his duality of aesthetics in a rigor of opulence, he literally depended on the caring attention of his home chef Albina Becevello, possibly the only woman he did not objectify in his life. And in his many written messages to Albina with specific culinary requests of all sorts, at any time of day and night, one can find a true praise for her cannelloni. No wonder. The dualistc pleasure of a fresh pasta roll and its filling, poor ingredients and rich finish, can conquer any human heart and stomach.

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Cannelloni with aubergine and ricotta (serves 3)

For the pasta
200 g ’00’ flour
2 eggs

For the filling
3 aubergines
250 g ricotta
100 g Parmigiano-Reggiano
1 tbsp olive oil

For the Béchamel/white sauce
100 g butter
100 g flour
1 l milk
1 pinch of grated nutmeg
1 pinch of salt

For the finish
20 g Parmigiano-Reggiano

Start with the pasta mix: prepare the flour fontana, crack the eggs in it, slowly break the eggs into the flour well, and stat amalgamate the whole into a doughy ball. Knead it for at least ten minutes till it becomes smooth, cover in cling film, and let rest for at least 30-40 minutes.

Chop the aubergines, place them in a sieve and cover them with a weight to let them lose their water (you can salt them in the meantime, if you prefer); when drained, sauté them till golden in a frying pan with the oil. When almost entirely cooked, let them cool down, and then mix them with the ricotta and the Parmigiano-Reggiano.

The Béchamel is ready in a few minutes as well. To help the preparation, leave the milk out of the fridge for a little while, to reach room temperature. Start from the roux, melting the butter and adding the flour–sift it if you can, it will make the sauce smoother. After a couple of minutes with the flour, the roux should turn light gold: slowly add the milk with the fire still on and whisk the mix. When it thickens, sprinkle with grated nutmeg and a pinch of salt.

Work the pasta dough with the rolling pin, till you can make rectangles about 15 x 10 cm, roughly 2 mm thick (I made 14 squares). If you want to make your life easier and the pasta a little bit better, dust the table with some flour and some semolina, but never the rolling pin! Boil the squares–ideally one or two at a time–and prepare the filling in a piping bag. Take one square, fill it with the aubergine and cheese mix, and roll into one cannellone. Prepare the oven tray with a base of Béchamel sauce and start lining the cannelloni while you make them.

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Once prepared the tray, cover the cannelloni with more Béchamel sauce and dust with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Bake in hot oven at 200ºC/180ºC fan/mark 6 for about 20-25 minutes, plus an additional 5 minutes to grill.

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by Max

Wholewheat penne with saffron

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When I feel like having a healthy, tasty bite, and quick to prepare, I have two ‘superfoods’ that save my day: wholewheat pasta and saffron. They offer great combinations with many other ingredients, such as vegetables, cheese, fish, and meat. Today I added toasted sunflower seeds and pine kernels, a few porcini mushrooms, and a sprinkle of Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Wholewheat pasta is a blessing for a carbs-lover like me. In Italy we eat pasta almost every day (well, forget that ‘almost’) and it is common to have either durum wheat, wholewheat, or egg pasta. Wholewheat is rich in fibre, protein, and vitamins, but we actually have it when we want to add a crunchier and nuttier flavour to our pasta dish. Metabolism does the rest.

Today’s special guest, though, is saffron.

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Saffron offers you a palette of warm autumn colours: it is yellow on your food and it comes from the red styles of a precious purple flower. The plant itself grows slowly out of the summer into its autumnal ripeness. The little bulbs are planted in August and not watered, because they have to wait for early September rains. Then, the first leaves jut out of the soil and the flowers can be only hand-picked during the second half of October, before they open at dawn. Six purple petals hide three yellow, male anthers and the three red, female stigmas which are then toasted on almond and oak embers. Only the stigmas give flavour, but it is not uncommon to find also bits of anthers left in saffron bags, which will add more colour to the final product. You need up to 200,000 flowers for 1 kg of saffron. Luckily, you need only less than a gram for your cooking.

Its flavour alone is quite enigmatic, almost bitter and sharp, but yet so smooth and almost sweet when you let it dissolve in your food. It tastes like its ancient Greek myth, where the flower was the tragic end of Crocus, a young lover of nymph Smilax, favourite of god Hermes. And this bitter-sweetness is reflected in your food. I would recommend using Italian saffron from l’Aquila (PDO), but there are also other ones available on the market, particularly from Iran and Spain.

Wholewheat penne with saffron (serves 4)

400 g wholewheat pasta (penne/fusilli/any short shape)
1 bag of saffron (stigmas or powder)

Optional:
2 tsp sunflower seeds
2 tsp pine kernels

While you get the water for your pasta boiling, place in hot oven (180°/fan 160°/mark 4) a tin containing the sunflower seeds and pine kernels with a pinch of salt an a drop of olive oil. They will toast for about ten minutes while your pasta is cooking.

Add the pasta to salted, boiling water and let cook as indicated on package–usually, it is 11 minutes for short pasta. Do not cook too much al dente when you use wholewheat, because this type of pasta retains its crunchiness a bit longer than the durum wheat one.

To prepare the saffron, you can either leave the stigmas in a bit of warm water (the time depends on how long they have been toasted, it is usually specified on the pouch) and add them and their water to the pasta pot a couple of minutes before the pasta is ready to be drained. If you are using saffron powder, then keep some of the cooking water when you drain your pasta. Place the pasta in a pot, dust the pasta with the saffron powder, and add the little cooking water directly onto the saffron. Mix well.

If you are going for the optional extra of today’s recipe, add the toasted sunflower seeds and pine kernels before serving and don’t forget a sprinkle of Parmigiano-Reggiano! Enjoy!

by Max

Parmesan cheese lollipops

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This is an easy, fast recipe for a tasty snack. All you need is the king of cheese: Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Dealing with royals is simple: there is no obligatory code of behaviour, they say, but it is much better to stick to tradition. And this is all Parmigiano-Reggiano is about. In their way, producers respect the Consorzio’s etiquette: they honour the oldest tradition of food production standards–even older than Champagne or Bavarian beers, and actually stricter than those. To make it, you are allowed to use only cow’s milk, salt, and rennet (a natural enzyme). Nothing else. The milk has to be milked on the same day, it has to come from the local healthy cows, who have eaten only local grass. That’s it. Strictly local, strictly natural, pure breed.

You need 14 litres of milk to make 1 kilo of cheese, which adds up to about 550 litres for each wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano. That is 15% of all Italian milk. But most of the final product remains at home, only 1/3 leaves Italy. Minimum aging is 12 months, reaching 30 months at max.

Now that you know what making the king of cheese is like, picture yourself there. Imagine a green lowland dotted of yellows and browns, with a few soft hill towards the southwest, warm, quiet. Everything moves with its own time, not too fast, not too slow. You’ve got to wait for at least twelve months, anyway. And that’s only when the first official control comes. This is the coolest job: the analytical protocol examiner smells the cheese, looks at each wheel’s colour, roundness, and internal structure, and gets to gently ‘play’ it like a drum with a cool little rubber mallet. It can only sound right, there is no falsetto, out of tune, or wrong note. Otherwise, it is not royal. So, when you cook with Parmigiano-Reggiano, you become part of something special, ancestral, essentially flawless: enjoy it!

Pamigiano-Reggiano lollipops (4 of them)

60 g Parmigiano-Reggiano (I usually prefer 24 or 30-month-old)
4 skewers

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Preheat the oven at 220°/200° fan/mark 7. Meanwhile, line an oven tray with some parchment paper and a little bit of butter. Grate the cheese and place it on the oven tray in small discs, less than half a centimetre high. Place the skewers on top of the cheese discs and cover with a little more grated cheese. You can mix the grated cheese with poppy seeds, sesame seeds, tyme leaves, or other herbs–see the picture on the right.

Lower the oven at 180°/160°/mark 4 and place the tray in the middle of the oven. Leave for 5 to 10 minutes, according to the thickness of your lollipops.
Take out of the oven when the cheese is golden and starting to make bubbles. Let the lollipops cool down completely(!) and only then remove from the parchment paper.
by Max