Italy is one of the best places in the world for amazing food. Some of the highest ranking restaurants and chefs internationally are Italian, and many of its exports have become the favourite foods of the majority of the planet. The cuisine of southern Italy is characterised by its liberal use of tomatoes (imported from South America in the 1600s), olives, garlic, oranges, eggplant, zucchini, fish, chilli, capers, mozzarella and olive oil. Pasta is eaten as a part of most meals, traditionally as the first course (primo) between antipasto and a second course, usually involving meat or fish. Where the north of Italy has a lot more cream and butter in their dishes, the south is defined by tomato-based dishes that are flavoured with strong ingredients such as chilli and garlic. One of the staples of this cuisine is tomato passata, which is a seedless, skinless puree of tomatoes. In preparation for this week, I made my own passata late last summer, when tomatoes were cheap and delicious. To do this, I followed a very complicated recipe, using different types of tomatoes, and making three separate preparations of fresh, boiled and baked passata, then combining them. The theory behind this is that the boiled passata forms the base, and this is enhanced by the fresh passata, which brings the tart fresh flavours of summer, and the baked passata, which delivers sweet, rich notes. The passata that resulted was undeniably delicious, and better than store-bought, but it was certainly a lot of effort for a seemingly small amount of product… I found the flavours of the south this week to be simple, fresh, and delicious, bringing to mind long leisurely lunches in the shade of olive trees under the scorching Mediterranean sun.
Fregola is a type of pasta from Sardinia, that has clear influences from North Africa, reflecting the short trip over the Mediterranean between the two places. True to its name, which derives from a word meaning “crumbs”, the pasta is formed by rolling semolina dough into small balls that are then toasted before being boiled. Fregola is somewhat similar to cous cous, especially pearl cous cous, which even echos the size of fregola, although cous cous is not toasted before cooking. There is debate over whether fregola was invented independently by the Sardinians, or influenced by important couscous from the early Punics of Carthaginians, however I am more sensible than to enter into that debate. Sardinia being a paradisal island in the middle of the Mediterranean, it’s only reasonable that fregola is commonly served with a variety of delicious seafood, especially in a tomato-based sauce. I cooked my fregola with prawns, mussels, clams, squid and octopi in a tomato and fennel sauce, and I was pleasantly surprised at the satisfying texture of the dish. Not quite a risotto, not quite a pasta, but something that borrows from the best aspects of both, this dish is one of my many treasured finds that I will surely be making again in the near future.
Pizza is one of the most famous and beloved international foods, so much so that 13% of the USA eats pizza every day, and there is a national pizza month in many countries. The word “pizza” was first recorded in the 10th century in Italy, but modern pizza is generally thought to have been invented in Naples in the 18th century. The spread of pizza to other countries has resulted in distinctly “unItalian” ingredients and methodologies becoming commonplace, including packing too many ingredients on, and, most controversially, pineapple. My Italian friend Anna is an incredibly sweet person, and I think would forgive almost anything you did to her, but pineapple on pizza sends her into a frothing and unforgiving rage. I’ve never minded it, but I definitely didn’t include it on my pizzas this week… Better safe than sorry! I made the dough by combining a fine plain flour with yeast, a little sugar, salt, oil and water. I combined and kneaded it for what felt like hours (but was probably only 10 minutes) until a smooth silky dough resulted. I waited until it had doubled in size, then rolled out individual balls into pizza shapes. To top the pizzas, there are two main categories of sauce: bianca (white) where a drizzle of oil is put on the bare dough before the other toppings, and rossa (red) which is the tomato passata base that you are likely more familiar with. I made many varieties of pizza not pictured, including many classics: pizza tartufo e funghi (truffle, mushroom, parmesan on a white base); pizza alla Romana (anchovies, capers and mozzarella on a tomato base); pizza primavera (prosciutto, mozzarella and rocket on a tomato base); pizza margherita (basil, tomato and mozzarella on a tomato base); and pizza ai quattro formaggi (four cheeses – mozzarella, parmesan, gorgonzola and gruyere on a white base). However, for the picture I chose pizza quattro stagioni (four seasons), as I’m a sucker for seasonal symbolism and, of course, squeezing many ingredients and concepts onto a small piece of real estate. The four seasons pizza showcases some of the most typical ingredients synonymous with each of the seasons, with tomato and basil representing summer, mushrooms and truffles for autumn, ham and olives for winter and artichokes for summer. Although the traditional way to cook pizzas is in a scorching hot wood oven, I used my electric oven on its highest setting, which worked very well. I always love home made pizzas, and I think making your own is a good opportunity to become acquainted with the “less is more” philosophy of Italian food. Apart from the exception of the four seasons pizza, I try to limit myself to a maximum of three toppings per base, excluding one type of cheese and sauce, and have found that to be a good way of sticking to the maxim of culinary minimalism.
Parmigiana, arancini, caprese salad and orange and fennel salad
If you just order a parmigiana in any Australian pub, you will likely be brought a chicken “parma”, which is a breaded piece of chicken topped with tomato passata and cheese. This, I have been forcefully informed by Italians, is definitively not Italian, and is an Australian bastardisation of the concept. In Italy, parmigiana refers to a preparation of baked vegetables with passata and cheese, most often eggplant. Parmigiana is thought to have originated from southern Campania and Sicily, and the name may be related to the use of parmesan cheese (Parmigiano-Reggiano), which, in turn, is named after the provinces where the cheese is made in northern Italy. The eggplant is sliced thinly, then shallow-fried, deep-fried, grilled or baked, either with or without a coating of egg, breadcrumbs, flour or batter. The slices are layered in a casserole dish with tomato sauce, mozzarella, parmesan and basil, and then baked in the oven until bubbling and golden. I made my parmigiana by first salting the eggplant slices and letting them rest to release the bitter juices, then rinsing, lightly crumbing and pan-frying the slices. I used tomato passata to make a sauce with garlic, and mixed egg into a portion of the cooled sauce so that it would thicken in the oven. Instead of the sloppy casserole, I made little parmigiana towers, which are not strictly traditional, but very cute and with a firm and satisfying texture. Arancini are thought to have originated during the 10th century in Sicily, and are a typical example of a food born from the economical desire to use up leftovers. The name means “little orange”, likely referring to their shape and colour once cooked. The risotto can be whatever is left over, but is typically fairly plain and flavoured with saffron, which is how I made it. The rice is usually wrapped around a filling of ragu (minced meat sauce), peas and mozzarella (although many variations exist), then dipped in egg and breadcrumbs before being deep fried. I elected to create pear shapes, which is more common in eastern Sicily than perfect spheres, and I baked them, as I only deep fry when absolutely necessary. Caprese salad beautifully displays all the colours of the Italian flag, and is famous for its delicious simplicity of fresh mozzarella, tomato and basil, drizzled with olive oil. Orange and fennel salad is also from Sicily, and is one of my favourite combinations of flavours. It traditionally contains peeled and sliced oranges (I used a few different varieties, including blood orange), red onion, thinly sliced fennel, black olives and mint, dressed in olive oil.
Orichiette alle cime di rapa
Orichiette is a shape of pasta typical from the southern region of Apulia, literally meaning “small ear”, the characteristic shape coming from pressing little sheets of pasta against the tip of the thumb. Orichiette is arguably the most famous pasta of the Apulia region (the heel of the Italian boot), and “alle cime di rapa” is among its most famous preparations. The latter portion of the name refers to the tips (cime) of rapini (similar to broccoli rabe in English). This vegetable isn’t used much in Australia, but is a relative of turnips that is much leafier, sort of like kale or spinach in texture and bitterness. Contrary to my original supposition, it is not what we call broccolini, which is actually a hybrid species of broccoli and Chinese greens. I couldn’t find any rapini in Australian shops, so I bought some seeds and gave them to my ever-patient Dad who very kindly planted them out in his wonderful vegetable patch and tended to them until harvest time. Other than these two ingredients, the recipe I used was very simple: garlic, anchovies and chilli flakes fried in oil briefly, followed by breadcrumbs to soak up the oil. This mix is then stirred through the freshly cooked pasta with some parmesan cheese, along with the very lightly blanched rapini. No matter how many times I make these kinds of simple Italian meals, containing only a handful of cheap ingredients, I’m still reliably surprised by how ingeniously delicious the result is. the breadcrumbs in this case provided a wonderful vehicle for salt, fat and chilli evenly coating the pasta and fresh greens with a satisfying crunch.