Thursday, 30 October 2014

Thistles for Supper!

Frittata di Cardi, Gratinata alla Mollica & Ricotta Salata Croccante
Crispy Bread Crumb-Topped Cardoon Frittata with Salted Ricotta


There are few things more typically Sicilian than cardoons, when it comes to favorite Winter vegetables- and yet they remain practically unknown to most of the rest of the world! Well, that's not strictly true, as the rest of Italy and France are also quite partial to them- but be honest... have you ever tried them before? If not, as long as you are not afraid of a little work in preparing them- you have an great discovery ahead of you my friends! And a delicious one at that!

These relatives of the artichokes that we are all familiar with, are basically a very similar plant, different only in that they do not produce the blossom that we know of as our eating artichokes... instead, it is the thorny stalks themselves that are so delicious- once they have been prepared of course!


There are 2 main ways that cardoons are eaten in Sicily- one dish is made of the simple, boiled cardoons, drizzled with oil and vinegar, simply seasoned with salt and pepper and maybe sprinkled with a little oregano- and the other is boiled, cooled-down and fried in a egg and flour batter, seasoned with Parmesan cheese and a little nutmeg. So of course, I did something different with mine this evening.

For my dish I needed 1 small bunch of cardoons, 2 eggs, about 1 cup of bread crumbs, 1 cup of grated salted Ricotta cheese, a little milk, 1 Spring onion, a little parsley and salt, pepper and nutmeg to season.

Adding a crispy topping and finishing the frittata off by baking it in the oven, made this just a little but special and a whole lot more delicious! It had all of the good things going for it that the regular battered cardoons have- but that crunchiness is a pretty awesome addition- especially when paired with the Ricotta rather than Parmesan- Yes! Another winner for you to try out my friends!

The first thing I suggest you do, is to cut the cardoons in half- just to make them easier to handle- they do tend to be rather large! And whilst we are o the subject of handling... be careful of those little thorns!

These little devils need to be treated with a little caution! But no- there is no need to wear gloves or anything as drastic as that- the best thing to do is to slice away the thorny edges right from the beginning.

Don't let this next picture alarm you... but yes! it IS quite a lot of work to peel away all of those tough sinews from the outside of the stalks and you do end up throwing away almost as much as you keep... but it's worth it! You may have a super-fantastic vegetable peeler that will work for you, but I found that it was quicker and easier to used a regular knife- be very thorough though! You will not do yourselves any favors by leaving any of those sinews on there- they are absolutely tough and inedible!

Using a very sharp knife, I chose to cut mine against the grain- which is rather un-typical! The knife needs to be sharp, otherwise you run the risk of the remaining fibers and sinews pulling apart and making your slices ugly and your dish tough, chewy and inedible... take heed! Once they are relatively finely sliced, they can be popped into a saucepan of boiling, salted water to simmer away for the next 40 minutes... yes, they do take that long... but again- they ARE worth it!

In the meantime, turn your oven on to get it hot and prepare a little tasty batter for your frittata. Mix together the 2 eggs, half of the grated salted Ricotta, most of the parsley, the Spring onion cut into very fine slices, a good splash of milk, a little salt and plenty of pepper and nutmeg.

Then mix a cupful of bread crumbs with the other half of the grated salted ricotta and the last bit of finely chopped parsley, add pepper and nutmeg and set to one side, ready for action!

Once the cardoons are boiled and tender, drain them and allow them to cool before starting on putting your frittata together. Start by pouring some of the batter into your frying pan first and then adding the cardoons. Next, pour the remaining batter over the cardoons and press them down so that everything is mixed nicely and evenly.

Sprinkle generously with the seasoned bread crumbs, drizzle with a little olive oil and begin to fry on the stove top until the batter begins to bubble away around the outside edges- then transfer the pan to a hot oven and continue cooking/baking for the next 10-15 minutes, at 180°C, until the batter is set, the frittata is firm and the bread crumb and ricotta topping is deliciously golden brown!

The smell from the oven is delicious, the taste of the finished frittata is even more so- and it is now finished and ready to enjoy! But fear not- the great thing about this is that it tastes great cold- should there be any left that is!

Simple, delicious and awesome good food! Who needs anything fancier than this? Not I, say I! And I am unanimous in this!

This was a small, single portion just for my little-ol' self- but I suggest you roll up your sleeves and make plenty more if you are not a singleton like myself- because your family or your friends might just love these too!


Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Arabesque - Romanesque!

Romanesco con Bulgur Turco, Pancetta, Sumac, Uvetta, Peperoncino & Semi di Finocchio
Romanesco with Turkish Bulgur, Bacon, Sumac, Raisins, Chili & Fennel Seeds


Oh, I really got lucky with this combination, dear readers- and how! And no, you can not do without that little bit of bacon, my vegan, vegetarian and Muslim friends- it simply has to be! This was inspired and improvised perfection, dare I say it! And indeed, this time, I do!

Sweet raisins, sour and tangy sumac, spicy chili flakes and savory, delicious bacon... how could that poor Romanesco cauliflower and that handful of Turkish bulgur do anything BUT end up tasting delicious after being cooked together? That's right... they couldn't!


Apart from sometimes being a little heavy on the digestion and a little light on a strong flavor of its own, Romanesco is one of those vegetables we love to buy- or at least love to think of buying, simply because of its wonderful appearance- we may as well admit it! And the resulting dishes are usually pleasant enough... but if we are brutally honest... often rather underwhelming to say the least. But not this dish!


For this dish, I needed 1 small Romanesco- just the size of a large grapefruit and perfect for a single serving, 1 good cup of Turkish bulgur (the kind with the toasted vermicelli mixed-in), a handful each of bacon and raisins, 1 Spring onion. 1 tablespoon of sumac, 1 teaspoon of fennel seeds and 1 teaspoon of chili flakes.


I prepared mine in my Tagine, although a regular saucepan would also work just fine of course... but still, there is something about the way that a Tagine traps the steam and cooks so evenly and perfectly... and that makes it so much more rewarding! So people- if you have got a Tagine... go grab it and let's get busy together!


First things first- cut the Romanesco into quarters and then simply using one diagonal cut, remove the main stalk and then separate the individual little florettes. Cut the larger ones in half, so that you have nice, pleasant bite-sized pieces.


Next, start the finely chopped bacon, sliced Spring onion and fennel seed sizzling in the Tagine.


2-3 minutes later, add the Romanesco, add a good pinch of salt, cover with boiling water, reduce the heat to a slow simmer, put on the lid and allow to cook for 10 minutes.


After that time, add the bulgur, the raisins, a teaspoon of sumac and stir everything together well, so that the bulgur becomes nice and moist. Then return the lid and allow to steam on for a further 10 minutes.


Beneath that lid, trapped in the steam-bath within, is a wonderful meal- just waiting to be enjoyed! Serve piping hot and sprinkle with a little extra chili and sumac to taste... you're going to love it!


You will never think of Romanesco as so boring again- and so wonderful to be able to make something so great out of it without having to add any extra butter, cream or anything unnecessary like that- just great spice, savory bacon and those sweet raisins to add balance- perfect! And with that bit of added bulgur, a complete meal in itself! make this for yourselves and enjoy! I'm sure you will!


Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Vegetable Layer-Bake

"Lasagna" di Tortilla, Bietola Rossa, Melanzane Thailandese & Feta
Tortilla "Lasagna" with Red Chard, Thai Eggplant & Feta Cheese


Oops! I made something crazy for supper again- I just can't help myself sometimes! I have been playing around with the idea of making a lasagna-like dish using tortillas for a while, but didn't want to do a tomato sauce, ground meat, Bechamel sauce and cheese kind-of affair... what would be the fun in that? Nope- it would have to be something different and just a little bit mental- and just a little bit like this!

I guess the main thing that makes this look crazy is the color of that wonderful red chard- which is absolutely coincidental as the flavor is just the same as the regular green chard... but how was I supposed to resist? The important thing for me was that it was tasty and new- and it was all of that and more!


One aspect of the flavor of my dish and the classic lasagne, was the rich, nutmeg flavor that the Bechamel sauce brings with it- only in my dish this evening, there was none of that butter and flour involved- it was a much lighter affair. It also had much less cheese in it than a regular lasagne and of course no meat- but was satisfying enough for all of us meat-eaters that it would delight us as much as our vegetarian friends- something for everyone here... well- except for our vegan buddies! Sorry! You just can't please all of the people all of the time as they say! And in the first instance... my meals are made to please ME first! Haha!


So, for my one-person feast, I needed 1 small head of chard, 1 Spring onion, 1/2 of a Feta cheese, 3 Thai eggplants (regular eggplant would obviously also be fine)- and 3 tortillas.


Sometimes a change is as good as the rest!  


I cut the stalks of the chard up small and cut the leaves into strips, I crumbled the Feta cheese and sliced the eggplant and onion up equally finely... then I turned on the oven to get it hot and ready, brought some water to the boil for the chard... and got my little cooking show on the road!

Once the water was boiling in my saucepan, I added a good pinch of salt and the stalks of the chard, then dropped the leaves on top and let it bubble away for just 5 minutes.


Whilst that was happening, I gently fried the eggplant slices in a little olive oil and after 3-4 minutes, added the Spring onion so that it would also soften up a little. I seasoned with salt and pepper and after frying for 7-8 minutes in all, turned off the heat and set them to one side to cool.

In the meantime, the chard was almost tender and so I poured off the water. I then added enough milk to half-cover it, plenty of nutmeg and a little olive oil, brought it up to the boil and then turned off the heat and let the chard infuse with the milk and nutmeg flavors- which made it milder and of course richer at the same time... Chard loves nutmeg, you know!


Next, I trimmed down my tortillas to fit my baking dish- you will get 2 decent sized rectangles to fit a standard Lasagna dish from 1 regular tortilla.


And then the layering began! I started off my laying a couple of eggplant slices at the bottom of the dish to stop the first layer sticking and began to stack up the ingredients step by step. The first layer was eggplant, onion and of course Feta cheese. I added a little more pepper and nutmeg and continued with the next layer...


...which of course was the chard and Feta and the rich, colorful milk, which I also drizzled lightly on top- not too much, just enough to moisten the tortillas.


I built up the layers until I had used up all of my ingredients and pressed the top layer down firmly- this helps get those juices and the milk into every slice. Any excess milk can be drizzled over the top, along with a little olive oil and a last sprinkle of pepper and nutmeg- then into a hot oven it goes, at 180°C, for 15-20 minutes until it is looking rich and toasty and delicious!


Very simple, very delicious, and nicely healthy and light... What's not to like?


And it is as flavorful as it is colorful! Which is a wonderful thing in itself!


Monday, 27 October 2014

Saffron & Pearls

Orzotto alla Zaffarana con Carciofi & Piselli
Pearl Barley "Risotto" with Saffron, Artichokes & Peas


Rice is nice, but barley is... well, pretty nice too! I love the chewy texture of barley and the way it absorbs other flavors and makes them its own... just like rice... only... maybe a little better sometimes. Like this time for example!

I decided to make a saffron-infused barley this evening, to blend with baby artichokes and peas- all classics of Italian cuisine and perfect in combination. Especially with a kiss of Parmesan to lift all of those good flavors up together- you might just well be surprised at how wonderful this tastes together!


I love making dishes from such simple ingredients and then making them special. Oh, I know, I have a quite a few threads of saffron in this dish, but still, it is frugal and fabulous at he same time, as well as being healthy and delicious. Barley may be one of those long-forgotten ingredients- but seriously- why go following fads and trends and eating grains like quinoa when we have our own wonderful varieties right here? If it was good enough for the ancient Romans- then it's more than good enough for me!


For 2 nice portions I needed just 2 handfuls of barley, 1 shallot, 3 baby artichokes, 2 handfuls of peas, a little Parmesan, saffron and parsley and about 45 minutes of time.


The result is tasty without being overpowered by a strong vegetable or chicken broth, as would be the case with most traditional risotto dishes- no, this has all of the flavors of its constituent ingredients boiled into it right from the get-go... and they are more than enough! You better believe it!


I trimmed the artichokes and cut away the top 2/3rds of them- seems wasteful, but at the same time they are inedible! So, the only thing that might make sense, if you were to be making maybe 5-6 portions, would be to boil them up to make extra broth... but not tonight! Instead, I cut them in half, cut out the "choke" and then cut them into relatively thin wedges. T be precise, I cut them into quarters first and then cut each quarter into three slices. Other than that, all I needed to do was to finely chop the shallot and to chop down the stems of the parsley... and to heat up a pan, ready to get started!


I began by frying the artichoke slices, shallot and parsley in a little olive oil until they began to slightly turn brown.


I then added the barley and let it also get coated in olive oil, soaking up the flavor of artichoke and shallot. I seasoned with salt, pepper and a touch of nutmeg, then added the saffron- a good pinch. You can always add more as the barley cooks- the color it turns once the water is added should be a good indicator- and adding boiling water is the next step!


Add plenty of water- enough to cover everything and a touch more... bring it up to the boil, reduce it back down to a gentle simmer and then let it bubble away for 20-25 minutes, stirring occasionally.


Next, add the peas, have a little taste to see if you need any extra seasoning and then let it simmer on for a further 10 minutes.


By now the barley will be tender, as will the artichokes and peas and all that needs to be added is a last trickle of olive oil, a good pinch of finely chopped parsley and plenty of Parmesan cheese, to be stirred-in to richen and bind the broth to a nice creamy consistency... Now- where are those plates?!?!


Serve with a sprinkle of parmesan and some freshly ground pepper and simply enjoy!


Perfumed, perfect and delicious- this is what a great Autumn dish looks like! And I sure hope you like it! I know that I do!