I don’t mean to pesto you…

Freshly made pesto

‘Have respect’. My Italian 1980s upbringing could be easily summed up with this sentence. Most of our parents had this phenomenally heavy heritage of humbleness that they had to pass on to our generation–blame it on catholicism or their post-fascist education, possibly both, go figure. ‘Have respect’ was a clear warning before any form of action, rather than a reparatory reprehension like the English ‘show some respect’. In a nutshell, live by the saying ‘forewarned is forearmed’ and you might as well dodge mum’s flying slipper.

The ‘have respect’ admonition used to be considered a perfect fit for any purpose: when you addressed other people, when you had to go somewhere and needed to be on time, or when you sat down for a meal, for instance. Because there was always a good reason to have respect and to make sure you did not miss the opportunity to show it.

Today, even though mostly lost culturally-wise, the daunting pseudo psalm ‘have respect’ still survives within every piece of Italian food prepared from the Alps to Lampedusa. It becomes a ritualistic foreword which prevents you from conceiving a pizza with pineapple (unless it is a video prank in Naples), or ask for cream or ham in your pasta carbonara, for example. The same can be said about pesto: it is delicious in its traditional recipe and that is about it.

Pesto genovese is an uncooked, fresh sauce for pasta originating from Genoa. The Ligurian capital, also called The Superb, is as old as its stones–the first settlement actually dates to the Neolithic. The town boasts a traditionally fierce population, mockingly as stingy as its perched-up mountains slanting onto the sea. So, when you deal with pesto, you had better be careful and have respect.

Colours and textures of pesto

The original pesto recipe is registered at the local consortium and includes seven specific ingredients: Genoese DOP (Denominazone di Origine Protetta, i.e. PDO, Protected Designation of Origin) basil leaves, pine kernels, garlic, coarse salt, Sardinian DOP Pecorino cheese, DOP Parmesan cheese, and Ligurian extra virgin olive oil (check our previous post on EVO oil). A traditional serving may well include potatoes and green beans boiled with the pasta, in order to add starchiness and texture to the dish.

Pesto Genovese
(serves 2, about 250g of pasta)

  • BASIL (leaves only), 25g
  • PINE KERNELS, 8g
  • GARLIC, 1/2 clove
  • SALT (coarse/rock), 1 tsp
  • PECORINO CHEESE (grated), 15g
  • PARMESAN CHEESE (grated), 35g
  • EVO OIL, 50ml

Method

If you want to do it the proper way, get yourself a marble mortar and a wooden pestle–it also works if you use a marble pestle like I do. Work it clockwise while holding the mortar and spinning it in the other direction. Do it as quickly as possible, in order to preserve all the oils from the ingredients and to prevent oxidation, but do not rush it. Give each of the following steps the time you need to properly complete the process.

  1. Grind garlic and the coarse salt till they become creamy.
  2. Add the pine kernels and continue until they are finely ground.
  3. Add the basil leaves and shred them while moving the pestle.
  4. Add the two types of cheese, previously grated.
  5. Finish with the EVO oil and work it till the compound is almost smooth, yet preserve some texture of your ingredients.

If you want to cheat, use can use a hand blender. In this case, I recommend you keep the blades in the fridge for a couple of hours before using the blender and operate it intermittently rather than continuously, so your basil will not bruise during the process and the pesto will not come out brownish.

The beauty of a good pesto starts with its colours palette, ranging over emeralds, dots of forest green, and sapphire shimmers. If it is a respectful pesto, when you eat it you want to feel the textures of its precious ingredients. Sharp, balsamic spikes hit your tongue with every snippet of basil. Salty, crunchy crystals of cheese gently melt in your mouth’s warmth. And it all makes sense as the heat of the pasta melds the flavours together.

An old Genoese saying goes ‘A l’à a belessa de l’ase‘, literally ‘it has the beauty of the donkey’, possibly a linguistic corruption from the French saying ‘La beauté de l’âge’, or ‘The beauty of age’. In any case, a Genoese calling you that could mean that your only good quality is beauty because you are young. Do not get offended, it is still a compliment. Have respect.

MUSHROOMS ON TOAST WITH RED WINE & THYME

 

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Mushrooms have not always been my favourite. As a small child growing up in a countryside I was obviously surrounded by forests full of delicious and also fatally poisonous mushrooms. I still remember the joy of finding little ‘hats’  hidden at the bases of trees. But back then I was not so keen on eating them. Of course there was that fascination with the knowledge of the pickers on which ones are good and which ones you mustn’t touch.

We used to have a large loft in our house and it was perfect for drying sliced mushrooms. The aroma would fill the house for a few weeks and I used to love it. My mother was very puzzled by my obsession with the smell but my absolute disgust when it came to eating mushrooms. I think I started appreciating mushrooms only recently. It was mushroom risotto that completely changed my mind. But I am also slowly learning how limited they are in the usual supermarkets. Thank goodness some of us are lucky with a local deli that offers a selection of random and glorious mushrooms. So I have decided to experiment with some mushrooms, red wine and thyme. What could possibly go wrong?

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Mushrooms on Toast with Red Wine and Thyme

(serves 1-2)

Ingredients
6 small portobello mushrooms
dash of olive oil
4-5 slices of sourdough or multi-seeded bread
3 cloves of garlic
a dash of red wine
4-5 springs of thyme

Sprinkle small pan with a little bit of olive oil and place sliced bread once hot enough. Turn the bread once it starts to warm up and brown a bit. When both sides are toasted, place on a serving plate. Add more olive oil and fry pressed garlic. Add a splash of red wine and leave to simmer to cook the alcohol away. Add the thyme so that the sauce starts to take the flavour in. if you have mushroom stock then add a tiny bit in. Once the sauce is thickened add sliced mushrooms and leave to cook for a few minutes. When mushrooms are cooked and the sauce is thickened place on each toast. And there you! A quick snack is ready for you to enjoy plus kitchen smells heavenly too.
by Maria

Caponata penne

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This caponata pasta is the lighter adaptation of a traditional dish from Sicily which is a true lush vegetarian delight. It would be difficult to define it, because it is simply too good, so essential, yet leaving you with the most fulfilling feeling only a vernacular masterpiece can deliver. Caponata is symphony of warm colours, intense smells and flavours, all mingling with its own ancient history.

The aubergine is the protagonist of this dish, combined with celery, tomatoes, onions, capers, olives, pine kernels, basil, and olive oil, lots of it–as you are supposed to fry the vegetables in it. The whole lot is magically concocted with some sugar and a splash of vinegar. It sounds funny today to think that when aubergines arrived in Sicily with the first Arab invasion they were deemed to be apples that had gone off and carriers of diseases.

The earliest appearance of caponata in Sicily seems to date to the eighteenth century and its origin is of the poorest ones. A renowned local dish used the fish ‘capone’, quite expensive, which was deep fried and served with a sweet-and-sour sauce made with vinegar. The sauce was so delicious that it started to be prepared with aubergines and tomatoes, some of the cheapest and most available vegetables for anyone, especially those that could not afford the capone fish.

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Caponata penne (serves 2)

200-250 g penne
1 aubergine
100 g sun-dried tomatoes (drained)
30 g pine kernels
1 tbsp of sliced black olives
2 tbsp olive oil
1 garlic clover
1 mozzarella (about 150 g drained)

Gently cook the garlic in a frying pan with 1 tbsp of hot olive oil, till golden. Chop the washed aubergine and cook at mid-high heat for 10 minutes, tossing them now and then. After 5 minutes, add the sliced sun-dried tomatoes and olives. There is no need to add salt or pepper.

After the first ten minutes of cooking, lower the heat to minimum, add the pine kernels, while you put the pasta in salted boiling water–penne usually cook al dente in 11 minutes.

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Before the last minute of pasta cooking, take the caponata off the fire and add diced mozzarella. One minute later, drain the pasta, add it to the caponata pan, and mix to let the mozzarella melt.

Serve hot (!), with 1 tbsp of fresh olive oil and a couple of sun-dried tomatoes to decorate. You can also add two leaves of fresh basil if you like to strengthen the bitter flavour.

by Max

Sirloin steak and roast potatoes

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Easy, essential, tasty. Of course, you need to like meat in principle; otherwise, stick to the roast potatoes which are great anyway, even on their own. For the meat, I chose a sirloin steak medallion, very close to fillet and roughly £5 less per kilo. The potatoes are Charlotte ones, because I love their sweet nuttiness and their golden colour. (Also their name, to be honest). This recipe for potatoes is fantastic: it is easily prepared and it gives you a chance to serve lovely roast potatoes with an alluring look. Try it!

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Sirloin steak medallion with roast potatoes (serves 4)

4 sirloin steak medallions (about 180 g each)
2 kg potatoes
1 shallot
1 or 2 garlic cloves
3 tbsp olive oil
40 g butter
a few fresh thyme sprigs

Start with peeling, washing, and drying the potatoes with a cloth. Melt about 20 g of butter and add it to two tbsp of olive oil. Use part of this to line your baking tin–you can line it with foil, but still use the melted butter on top of the foil. Slice the potatoes with a mandoline, about 1.5 mm thick.

Place the potato slices in rows, do not worry if they look a bit tight, it is perfectly fine. If you place them too loose, they will dry out and burn. Brush the potatoes with the remaining melted butter and olive oil mix. Finely chop the shallot and place between the potatoes rows. Place in hot oven for 1 hour at 200°C/180°C fan/gas mark 6.

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While your potatoes cook, take the meat out of the fridge and let it rest on the counter without covering it–half an hour is usually fine, depending on how thick is your meat cut and if you are using a piece with bone, e.g. a côte de boeuf. I used here sirloin steak medallions, which are a rather lean part of the sirloin, at the top of the fillet.

Once the potatoes have cooked for an hour, take them out of the oven, add salt and the thyme sprigs, and put back in the oven for another 15-20 minutes till perfectly golden cooked and slightly brown on some of the top rims.

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Once the potatoes are back in the oven, season the meat, put 1 tbsp of olive oil in a hot pan, add the garlic, and brown the meat. Add the remaining butter (about 20 g) and spoon it over the meat as it melts and foams, and cook both sides. My preference is medium-rare, usually ready in 15-16 minutes. Leave for about 20 minutes for medium, and 25 minutes for medium-well. These cooking times may vary according to the steak thickness and cut.

Take off the fire and let the meat rest for a few minutes, while you take the potatoes out of the baking tin. Serve one row of potatoes–about two or three–per beef steak. Accompany with a bottle of Barbaresco, you won’t be disappointed.

by Max

Vegetarian impromptu: Courgetti with mushrooms and smoked scamorza cheese

FotorCreated.jpgA funny fridge-emptier, quickly prepared and very tasty. Vegetarian spaghetti, in this case spiralised courgettes, are just a good excuse to have a weird vegetable pencil-sharpener in the kitchen. It is useful if you feel lazy to prep. I had a few vegetables left in the fridge and Portabellini mushrooms are a good combination with the scamorza cheese which I had bought last week–and forgot about (how?!?). I added half a boiled egg for the sake of colour, mainly, and I apologise to those vegetarians who do not eat eggs. This dish would taste as good also without the egg.

The sweet, nutty flavour of the Portabellini mushrooms sings a tasty duet with the smoked scamorza. This is a simple yet fine cheese. It originates in southern Italy, even though my favourite one comes from the central regions like Marche, Abruzzo, and Molise. These regions still remain lands of real famers and you can always go around the countryside and find some fresh scamorza. I love its texture, thick and yet soft, almost spongey and chewy. In the large cheese family, scamorza sits between mozzarella and caciocavallo, and it is prepared with cow milk and warm water. The smoked version is slightly almondy, alabaster coloured, and with a thicker skin than the normal white scamorza, but equally filante–our word for stringy. A truly generous ingredient.

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Courgette spaghetti with mushrooms and scamorza (serves 2)

2 courgettes
250 g mushrooms
100 g scamorza cheese
25 g butter
1 tbsp olive oil
a few sage leaves
1 clove of garlic
(1/2 boiled egg)

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Melt the butter in a frying pan on middle heat while you chop the washed mushrooms. I sliced them longitudinally rather than dicing them because they cook better and look nicer. Add the garlic either cleaned and chopped or still unpeeled. When the butter is starting to foam, add the sliced mushrooms and the sage. Cook at medium heat for about 6-7 minutes.

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While the mushrooms get cooked, prepare the courgetti–or simply finely slice the courgettes with a mandoline slicer. Add the courgette extra bits remaining from the cutting to the mushrooms and cook together for another 2-3 minutes at high heat. Meanwhile, quickly cook the courgetti in a frying pan with the tbsp of oil at mid-high heat.

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Start serving with a larger nest of your courgetti, on top of which you line a layer of thinly cut scamorza slices. Place the mushrooms still hot on top of the cheese slices, in the middle of your courgetti nest. Add a few scamorza flakes and, eventually, half a boiled egg.

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by Max

Sweet Treats: Chocolate & Banana Bread

I was never keen on banana bread. There was something about the colour that I somehow didn’t find attractive. Then, one day, I found a chocolate banana bread recipe with delicious streusel topping. The texture of moist and rich banana bread with crunchy and nutty topping works really well. It is such a perfect combination! I have made this recipe so many times and for so many of my friends. I hope also you will enjoy it and remember to cut the loaf into thick slices, otherwise you’ll blink and it’ll be gone…

Ever since I was a child I loved my chocolate custard dessert with bananas. To my nan’s surprise–or disappointment–I kept ordering it as my birthday treat. She was fairly unimpressed by the simplicity of it, but I still preferred it to fancy, glittery and colourful fruit iced sundae.

Bananas are a delicious fruit once they are ripe enough. On top of their unique taste, you also get a huge vitamin B6 and magnesium boost. But only a relatively small portion of potassium in comparison to apricots. They are ever so popular as an addition to smoothies as their lovely sweetness works well even with kale. Fun fact of the day: they are botanically classed as berries!

Sweet Treats: Chocolate & Banana Bread (makes 2 loaves)

For the banana bread
100 g dark chocolate
150 g unsalted butter, softened
175 g caster sugar
3 eggs
175 g self-raising flour
1 tsp baking powder
25 g cocoa powder
2 large bananas, mashed

For the streusel topping
25 g unsalted butter
2 tbsp plain flour
1 tbsp demerara sugar
2 tbsp ground almonds, or any other nuts

Preheat the oven to 180°C (160°C fan/gas mark 4). Line two loaf tins with baking parchment or grease with butter and dust with flour.

For streusel topping, rub the butter into the flour and then mix with the demerara sugar and nuts.

Melt the chocolate over simmering water and set aside to cool down. Whisk the softened butter with sugar until pale and fluffy in texture. Gradually add whisked eggs and continue whisking until well mixed. Carefully fold in the flour with a large spoon and then the chocolate. Lastly, add mashed banana to the mix and chocolate. Mix well and divide the mixture into the two tins. Sprinkle the struesel topping on each loaf and put into the oven. Bake for 45 minutes until a skewer comes out clean once inserted into the loaf. Place both loaves on the cooling rack. Enjoy with a lovely cup of tea.

by Maria

Jerusalem artichoke soup with leek and shallot

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Due to the snowy spring we are getting here in Europe, I am posting this soup I made in January, before Maria and I started our blog. It might be uneasy to find Jerusalem artichokes after March/April, but if you can get them, have a go! This is simply gorgeous stuff. It takes a bit of time, but it will reward you. Fully.

These tubers were already used by natives in north America and arrived in Europe from Brasil in the 1600s, via Portuguese importers. They then spread across western Europe quite quickly. Their name possibly comes from the misunderstanding of ‘girasole‘, sunflower in Italian, which resembles the word Jerusalem, as said by Italian immigrants in north America.

On the outside, Jerusalem artichokes look like ginger roots, but when you open them, they glow with a unique nacreous shine. Also their taste holds charming secrets, starting from a starch-less, soft potatoey crunch moving to a bitter-sweet nutty finish. I have tried them sautéed or roasted as a side dish, but this time I wanted something comforting, warm, and focused on their peculiar flavour. And in these days, I could really use them again to chase this cold away…

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‘[…retire therefore,] November, depart from this April!’

Jerusalem artichoke soup (serves 4)

500 g Jerusalem artichokes
1 shallot
1 leek
1/2 l vegetable broth
2 tbsp olive oil
a few rose petals

Start washing the tubers and scrub the bulgy edges with a potato peeler. Put them with one tbsp of oil in hot oven at 180°C/160ºC fan/gas 4 for about 30 minutes. When baked, take out and leave to cool at room temperature.

Meanwhile, finely chop the shallot and the leek, and pan fry them in a pot with one tbsp of oil at low heat. Let them slowly turn golden. When the Jerusalem artichokes have cooled down, peel them one by one–the skin will easily come off at this point. Dice them and add to the vegetable base in the frying pan, and cook for another 5-10 minutes, according to how big you have chopped them.

Remove from fire and blend together with warm vegetable stock. Don’t overdo the blending or you will lose the texture of the Jerusalem artichokes. Before serving, warm the soup again in the pot for a few minutes, drizzle with fresh olive oil, and decorate with the rose petals. This will warm you up.

by Max

Naughty pork fillet medallions in ginger and white wine sauce

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This is a quick and naughty version of a Parmesan dish called ‘La Rosa di Parma’, which is usually made with beef fillet, staffed with prosciutto crudo, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and cooked in a red wine sauce. To make my properly naughty version, I wrapped pork fillet in unsmoked streaky bacon and sage, I cooked it in white wine and ginger sauce, and served with pan-fried pak choi, fresh fennel, and maple syrup crispy bacon. I did say it is naughty, but in no way this dish will ever leave you disappointed or hungry at all. The dish comes from a mix of traditional Italian food, with some Anglicised flavours, and Asian ingredients. It would be difficult to put a pin on it; better to use a fork instead.

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This naughty pork fillet/tenderloin is pretty easy to prepare and takes reasonably little time. The hardest part was to find the cooking string, which I had to mooch off the butcher’s desk at my local supermarket. The ingredients are easily obtainable, at least here in London, almost any time of the year.

The original dish, La Rosa di Parma, is one of the town’s symbols, usually appearing on important occasion tables–that’s why it is made with expensive ingredients like the beef fillet, prosciutto crudo, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, Lambrusco red wine, and Marsala wine. It truly encapsulates the city’s imperial heritage of Marie Louise in some of its endemic flavours, except the Marsala, of course. I opted for a more cost-contained version, still retaining some of the typical Parmesan ingredients.

I had to cheat using unsmoked bacon, because there was no pancetta, but their preparation remains similar enough to give you almost the same taste. I chose to prepare the pork with white wine and ginger, instead of red and Marsala wines, because this meat calls for a milder dressing than the beef fillet. Fennel and pak choi followed the same rationale to avoid overpowering the dish or covering the delicate intensity of this pork cut. The final taste is a soft, sweet pork main, glazed by a thin, spicy wine sauce, accompanied by a fresh green bite, candied up by the bacon crisps.

Naughty pork fillet medallions (serves 3)

1 pork fillet (whole)
12 unsmoked streaky bacon rashers
a few sage leaves
cooking string
2 tbsp olive oil
15 g butter
2 glasses of white wine
30 g fresh ginger
1 tbsp maple syrup

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Start with sealing the whole fillet on a hot pan with 1 tbsp of oil and the butter, at medium heat for about 5 minutes. Take it off the pan when it is golden all around and starting to get brown. Slice the fillet into medallions of the same thickness, about 3-4 cm–unless you need to serve some more cooked than others: in that case, slice accordingly.

Wrap each medallion with one rasher of unsmoked bacon (or one pancetta rasher, if you can find it), four or five sage leaves, and tighten all together with the cooking string. Once all medallions are prepared, put them back into the hot pan with your second tbsp of olive oil, at medium heat.

After a few minutes, when one side of the medallions is turning brown, raise to high heat, flip them cooked-side-up, and wash with the first glass of wine till reduced. Then lower again to medium heat and cook for another few minutes. When also the second side is cooked, repeat the reduction process with the second glass of wine. Add the ginger now, which you have pealed and sliced, with a couple of shallot rings that you will not serve.

In the meantime, you can start preparing the remaining bacon rashers in another frying pan. You will add the maple syrup only at the end, after you added salt and they are cooked on both sides. The syrup will caramelise the bacon and get it crunchy like a crisp. Slice the washed fennel, and start preparing the pak choi, washing it and separating the leaves.

Once the pork is cooked on both sides, the bacon wrap should also be pink ready. Take the medallions off the pan, leave the remaining sauce to char the pak choi in a couple of minutes at high heat. Serve hot. Eat. And feel guiltily satisfied. Naughty…

 

by Max

 

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

Courgette pesto risotto with almond flakes and pine kernels

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Risotto is a vital part of my food. It says heritage and cooking experience to me. The options are always many, the last one was a fresh discovery. This risotto is cooked in courgette pesto and its flavour makes it a light, green-tasting new tint for me. The courgettes are prepared raw with cheese and some nuts, and then cooked with the rice. It takes little time to prepare and it is worth it.

Italian food has honoured courgette for centuries, literally. Arriving in Europe with the ingredients from the ‘New World’, courgettes were at the beginning confused for the European pumpkin, which was already widely diffused. Already in the seventeenth century, Italian courgettes from Modena were renowned for their versatility in the kitchen and for apothecaries uses.

Courgettes are the kind of vegetables that you go and get from the garden at home, and that is why they are prepared in so many ways, from vernacular roots to a posh finish, across Italy’s many local traditions. This version is geographical catch, because risotto is typically cooked in Piedmont, Lombardy, and Veneto, pesto comes from Liguria, and green courgettes are equally diffused north and south of the Boot.

Courgette pesto risotto (serves 4)

400 g rice Carnaroli–ideally, otherwise Arborio
1 l vegetable broth
1 glass of white wine
1 shallot
200 g courgette
20 g basil
1 clove of garlic
20 g pine kernels
10 g almond flakes
50 g goat cheese
oil

Start with washing the courgettes, cut extremities off, and shave each one at a time through a grater. Add a pinch of salt and let them drain some liquid.

Wash the basil leaves and blend with pine kernels, almonds, the cleaned garlic clove, and a tablespoon of oil–keep a few nuts for the serving decoration. Add the courgettes and another bit of oil. Your pesto has to look and feel soft and even.

Warm the oil in the pan, add chopped shallot till golden, and then raise the fire to toast the rice. After the first few minutes, the rice starts to lightly toast and smell very ‘cerealy’: add now the wine and let it reduce. Lower the fire and let cook for about 18 minutes adding the broth from time to time. Add your courgette pesto at the end with the very last bit of broth. Instead of creaming with butter, add the goat cheese and mix.

Serve with a sprinkle of the remaining pine kernels and almond flakes.

by Max