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.
Cannelloni, arancini and caprese salad
Cannelloni are a type of large, cylindrical pasta that are stuffed with a filling of your choice, and then baked in a sauce. I remember vividly the best cannelloni I ever ate: it was one of my first days in Italy and I was trudging through a freezing and misty Venice in January. I was in the midst of the inconvenient realisation that I was not adequately prepared for a European winter. Let me explain: where I live in Brisbane, temperatures rarely get below 15 degrees in the day, so we have no need for hats, gloves, warm shoes, winter coats etc. In fact, I’ve still never experienced snow… However, we also have fashion stores that want to turn a profit, and they sell us coats and shoes that look very similar to those we see fashionistas on TV wearing during a New York blizzard. My abrupt realisation was that, although these clothes look similar to what people wear on TV when it’s actually cold, they are not warm at all. So, with cold feet, groggy with jetlag and delirious with hunger, I stumbled into a small restaurant in one of the alleys of Venice. Through chattering teeth I gesticulated to something that I understood to be the lunch special, and sat as close as possible to a heater to try to warm up. The kindly waiter soon brought me my meal. which turned out to be a ricotta and spinach cannelloni in tomato sauce, as well as a steaming mug of hot chocolate. I suspect that the hot chocolate wasn’t actually a part of the set lunch, and he just didn’t want me to die in his shop, but I appreciated it all the same. I’m not sure if it was just my weakened state, but the cannelloni was truly divine, and I’ve tried to recreate it many times since, but never quite with the same effect. I made this cannelloni by first making my own ricotta, which is surprisingly easy, involving boiling milk then adding acid and straining out the curds. I mixed this with wilted spinach, salt, pepper and nutmeg, and then piped it into cannelloni tubes. I have previously tried to make the pasta fresh for cannelloni (as it’s much better than store bought for lasagne), but have had varied success with the seams coming undone during the cooking process, so I bought the tubes instead. I covered them in a sauce made with my tomato passata, cooked with onion, garlic and a little lemon zest, which complements the rich dairy filling. I then sprinkled some grated mozzarella and parmesan on top and baked them until soft and oozing. 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.
Pizza is one of the most famous and beloved international foods, so much so that 13% of the USA eat pizza everyday, 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… 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. The toppings I chose are all fairly traditional: pizza tartufo e funghi (truffle, mushroom, parmesan and ham 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). 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. I try to limit myself to a maximum of three toppings excluding one type of cheese and sauce, and have found that to be a good way of sticking to the tradition of culinary minimalism.
Eggplant parmigiana, ensalata pantesca 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 my 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! Ensalata pantesca is a Sicilian salad from Pantelleria, made with potatoes, cherry tomatoes, red onion, capers, black olives and oregano, dressed with red wine vinegar, olive oil and salt. 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.
Lasagna is loved the world over, and everybody has a treasured family member/friend who solidified their childhood love for the dish. For me, it’s my Aunty Pam, who made fantastic lasagne through my childhood that I still look forward to, and has to be my all-time favourite. For this lasagna, however, I had the good fortune of being visited by my friend Anna’s Mum, Loredana, a real-live Italian Mama who is widely renowned for being an excellent traditional cook. She drove this lasagna from her traditional recipe, and Anna and I tried to help (and mostly not get in the way too much). Lasagna is thought to be one of the oldest types of pasta, originating in the middle ages in Naples. This recipe has gone through many transformations during the centuries, including using semolina to make the sheets or wheat/fermented dough, and the inclusion of tomato, once it was introduced to Europe in the 15th century. Loredana’s recipe involved browning onion and a mix of beef and pork mince in a frying pan, then adding passata. We made the pasta sheets from scratch, mixing flour, water and egg into a dough, chilling it, then passing it through a manual pasta machine to flatten it. We made the béchamel by combining flour and butter into a smooth paste, then slowly adding milk until a smooth thick sauce had combined – seasoned with nutmeg and plenty of salt and pepper. We assembled the lasagna by layering the meat and pasta sheets, as well as plenty of fresh mozzarella, with a final layer of mozzarella and parmesan on top. I had previously made my meat sauce less runny and with dry pasta sheets, but much preferred this way – it was seriously juicy and delicious! One of the many important things that Loredana taught me is that she rarely uses garlic AND onion in the same dish, saying that the flavours compete and it’s better to choose one. I’m not sure if this is particular to her cooking style or Italy in general, but it does agree with my understanding of Italian cooking using very few high-quality ingredients, combined in ingenious ways. One of her catchphrases when describing recipes is saying “stop” at the end (meaning, that’s all you include, nothing more), and I have adopted this ethos in my approach to Italian cooking. It’s a great way to remember that sometimes the place where you draw the line in your list of ingredients is more important than the ingredients themselves. When thinking about cooking, I will forever hear Loredana’s voice reminding me to have the wisdom to “stop”.