Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Simply Sicilian

La Caponata Cotta in Tagine
Caponata Cooked in the Tagine


Caponata is the quintessential Sicilian "antipasto" or appetizer that is to be found on the menu of every eatery on the island- and rightly so! It is, in its many variations, one of the most delicious dishes of all!

The most important ingredient in caponata is eggplant, which combined with a number of other ingredients is stewed and cooked down into a wonderful, soft and chunky relish of sorts, that captures all of the colors and flavors of the island in one. It really is that special!


Many, MANY recipes claim to be the traditional or original... and all are similar... and yet probably no two are completely alike! Which I personally think is a good thing! This is a dish that everyone makes their own way- and you should make yours your own too! I will share with you the basics, I am suggesting in this incarnation of my recipe. that you might consider using a tagine...

But please- go ahead and make the dish distinctive and make it suit your own taste!


Please forgive me my friends for somehow having lost the ingredients photo for this evening, but let's start with the main ingredients, which you can see in this picture and I will tell you about the rest after that.

To make one good plateful, which will easily make 4 good-sized appetizer servings, I needed 1/2 of a round eggplant- or one smallish "regular-shaped" one, 1 red bell pepper, 1 green bell pepper, 1 onion, 1 stalk of celery... and now to the other ingredients- 1 tablespoon of capers, 7-8 green olives, 5-6 sprigs of thyme, 1 tablespoon of dried oregano, 4-5 leaves of basil, a little parsley, 1-2 tablespoons of tomato paste, salt, pepper, sugar and vinegar...

Nothing too unusual, exotic or extravagant... it is all in the combination!


Normally, the ingredients for caponata would be fried- in some versions all together, in others individual and then added together at the end.

In any case, usually you would need quite a lot of olive oil, quite a bit of time stood at the stove stirring... and those are 2 things I personally do not always want to have to do when it comes to preparing my food- which is where the tagine really comes into it's own!


For this version, I heated up 3 tablespoons of olive oil in the tagine and then added the peppers, onion, eggplant and celery. Obviously, you want to use a good olive oil... but don't hate me for this- my tip is- if your olives or capers came in olive oil- use the stuff you have in the jar... that is what I did! because of course it is LOADED with flavor!

Speaking of flavor, season with salt and pepper and add the thyme- then pop on the lid and let it sizzle for a minute or two before giving it a good stir and returning the lid.


After 4-5 minutes, things will have begun to sweat down and turn brown- and now is the perfect time to add the cherry tomatoes, tomato paste and the basil, which I tore up into smaller pieces.

Fry with the other ingredients for a minute or two and then deglaze the tagine with a good splash of vinegar- but stand back when you do this and don't breath in the vapors! haha! There is no danger of course- but it might take your breath away for a while if you don't!

Add a pinch of sugar, the oregano and a dash of water and replace the lid... only this time, don't touch it for the next 15 minutes.

After around 30 minutes of cooking, add the olives and capers, check the seasoning, give it a good stir and replace the lid. Let it simmer away and sweat down and continue cooking for another 15 minutes.

All of those ingredients have lots of moisture, so with the lid on and the steam that builds up in the tagine, everything will gently cook down together in their own juices and flavors will become richer and more intense- and by now- you will be smelling the wonderful caponata beginning to come together.

After around 45 minutes, everything will be cooked through and tender and delicious. The thyme leaves will have fallen from the twigs, which can be removed, and the juices will have reduced down to a sweet and sour, herb-infused perfection!

The caponata needs to cool down before you enjoy it- so pop the lid back on and let the residual heat trapped in the tagine continue the cooking process the whole remaining time... it's all good!


Add a last little sprinkle of parsley and stir it in before enjoying your caponata with some fresh crusty bread and a glass of wine. Or here's an idea- if you are having guests around or throwing a party, you could use this as an incredible topping for bruschetta. Or even as a topping for a pasta dish. Or simply as a side salad... it's a pretty wonderful and versatile thing you have made!

So, buon appetito in any case... whichever way you decide to enjoy it!

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Tandoori For Me!

Fritelle di Zucchine & Carote alla Menta, Zenzero & Tandoori
Tandoori-Spiced Zucchini, Carrot, Mint & Ginger Fritters


Here's another little side-dish idea for you... so easy to make that it is almost embarrassing and so delicious to eat you are well advised to make plenty of them... your serving dish will be empty before you know it!

Can you believe that I got these 12 fritters from just 1 round zucchini, 1 carrot and 1 shallot? Well- you had better! So they are fantastically frugal as well as being so delicious! And I like that a lot!


Ok, obviously there were a couple more very simple ingredients involved- and yes, I do sincerely apologize for being silly enough to accidentally delete my ingredients photo- duh!! But I will share my little little recipe with you and walk you through it step by step- just like I always have and always will- and you will be just fine!


This is the point in my write-up where you are usually shown a picture of the ingredients- but today it will just be this list- sorry! For 12 fritters I needed 1 round zucchini (or 1 somewhat larger regular zucchini), 1 good-sized carrot, 1 shallot, about 2" of fresh ginger and a good handful of fresh mint. Apart from that, there were the 2 eggs and enough bread crumbs to bind the whole mixture together... and of course... tandoori spice!

I made a simple dipping sauce of yogurt, mint, lemon juice and a drop of sesame oil to go with them- but I am just going to go-ahead and presume you always have those basics at home... that's just the way I am!


More and more I find, that the simpler you keep recipes- the better they turn out! let the ingredients have their own voice, even when you are using aromatic spices... as with this dish! Such a wonderful, rich combination... but one where each of the individual flavors shines through!


You can't get much easier than the preparation for these lovely fritters... simply finely grate the zucchini, carrot and ginger and finely chop the shallot...


Pop them into a bowl, crack-in the 2 eggs, plenty of finely chopped mint, a heaped teaspoon of tandoori spice, a good pinch of salt and plenty of pepper.


Stir everything together until all of the ingredients are well integrated... pretty liquid-looking mixture, huh?


...which is why we add the bread crumbs! Add 1 cupful at first, stir it in and then add more, little by little, until you get a thicker and firmer consistency.


Once it looks like this- about the consistency of a smooth mashed potato, let it sit for 5-10 minutes for the bread crumbs to soak up the juices from the grated zucchini and carrot... and then get your frying pan hot and ready to rumble... or sizzle!


I fried mine in clarified butter, or ghee, as one would in India... although there is nothing traditionally Indian about this dish- but it gives a great flavor and is easy to work with. Don't add too much butter and don't have your heat set too high- let them gently become firm and begin to turn golden around the edges before flipping them over.

After 3-4 minutes of gentle heat from each side... they will look like this... and smell terrific!


Serve them up with a simple dipping sauce of plain yogurt, with a drop of sesame oil, a squeeze of lemon juice, some finely chopped mint and simply salt and pepper... that's all they need to really bring them to life!

There! I told you they were easy to make! And although they are of course flavored with tandoori spice, they are so lovely and mild that they would be an excellent side to any meal.


And in the unlikely event of you having and left-overs... these will taste excellent cold as well! perfect with a salad for lunch the day after! Good, common-sense, sensible and delicious eating!

Monday, 24 November 2014

A Taste of the South

Orecchiette, Cicoria, Pomodori Secche, Salami di Cavallo & Ricotta Salata
Orecchiette, Chicory, Sun-Dried Tomatoes, Horse-Meat Salami & Salted Ricotta


Back to my roots again this suppertime and a very Southern Italian-inspired dish here, filled with all the flavors of "the heel of Italy" and reminding me so wonderfully of my trip to Lecce, in Puglia this Summer...

Orecchiette with chicory are an absolute classic and a favorite at all times in Puglia... but I recently bought a horse-meat salami that I have been eager to try out in a fitting recipe- and along with a handful of sun-dried tomatoes and some salted Ricotta cheese- this simple recipe was just about as fitting as fitting could be!


As I mentioned last night on Facebook, these greens, the chicory, were the outer-leaves of the lovely puntarelle that I made into a salad last night. My motto is absolutely to waste not and want not!

These slightly tougher and mildly bitter leaves are still so tender that they cook-down in next to no time and are a great ingredient to use in so many Southern Italian dishes- and they are so flavorful and healthy- I love them!


So, for one glorious dish of orecchiette, I needed around 2 handfuls of chicory, 3-4 sun-dried tomatoes, 1 shallot, 2-3" of horse-meat salami (or any other that you may prefer), about a teaspoon of fennel seeds and some salted Ricotta cheese for grating.


Yes, the horse-meat salami IS very tasty and yes i did enjoy it very much... but also yes, of course you can use any other salami you like when you make yours if you have a problem with that particular kind of meat- or the thought of it.

It's the matured, salty flavor of the salami that will give the pasta its seasoning, along with the sun-dried tomatoes and ricotta... no other salt added! So this will work as long as it is salami- or even bacon if push comes to shove... only... if you CAN do it my way- do so! The result really is exceptionally good!


Rinse and chop the chicory and pop it, together with 2 handfuls of orecchiette into boiling water.

In the meantime, finely chop 2-3" of the salami, finely slice the sun-dried tomatoes and finely chop the shallot.

By now the pasta and greens will have come up to the boil again, so return the heat to a simmer and in the following 5 minutes, prepare the other ingredients, so that you can bring everything together in your frying pan to finish them off.


Fry the salami, shallot and sun-dried tomato together with a teaspoon of fennel seeds in the salami's own fat- no need for any extra oil.

After 3-4 minutes, the salami will begin to turn crispy, the shallot to turn golden and the tomato so soak up the juices... perfect!


Drain the orecchiette, but no to thoroughly and add them along with enough water to cover the bottom of the frying pan to the other ingredients. Continue cooking together and stirring, so that the saltiness of the salami and sun-dried tomatoes infuses into the pasta and greens.


Serve with some grated, salted Ricotta cheese and freshly ground pepper and a scoop or too of that good, flavorful broth... and enjoy!


So full of flavor from the otherwise salty ingredients- this is a dish full of balance of bitter-sweet, salty and mild... it is everything that Italian cooking is all about!


 We are not all about tomato sauce or pizza down in the South- we love our bitter greens and we love our simple dishes! And yes, yet again, this is MY kind of food!


Sunday, 23 November 2014

Thanks for Everything!

Insalata di Thanksgiving da Francesco
Francesco's Thanksgiving Salad


For us Europeans, after turkey and apple pie, nothing is more synonymous for Thanksgiving to us than cranberries. They can be found all-over here, but basically have no real place in our culinary traditions... which is great! Diversity is what it's all about and it is wonderful that they can be found absolutely everywhere here too!

The only thing is... other than in sauces, either sweet or savory, people don't really know what to do with them...

So what did I do? Combined them with my favorite Italian salad green and created this beautiful and delicious salad! It was an experiment... it was based mostly on intuition... and it was a great success!


To make my delicious salad all I needed was a small head of puntarelle, which is a Roman chicory, 1 orange, a handful of mint leaves and 2 handfuls of cranberries... that was all!

If you can not get puntarelle and want to make something that looks similar and has a similar flavor, you can substitute it with endives or something similar... the flavor is almost the same... but still! I was lucky enough to find my favorites at the market yesterday... and so use them I did!


The puntarelle, or any variety of chicory for that matter, are slightly bitter... and cranberries are rather sour... so you would maybe think the result may not really be something you would want to eat... but think again after orange, mint, honey and good olive oil become part of the equation! I am telling you YES- you will like this combination... a lot!


You can prepare this well in advance and simply add the fresh mint leaves just before serving- which is what I did- which makes it really convenient too!


Simply snap the "pods" of the puntarelle away from the main stem and then cut them into the thinnest slices you can manage.

Next, top, tail and peel your orange, cutting away all of the white pith and then carefully cut out the segments using a sharp knife. Wring out the remaining "carcass" of the orange into a bowl... that will be the basis of your dressing!


The next bit of the prep-work is the fiddly bit... but if I can do it, you can too! As you can see, those cranberries need to be thinly sliced... eeek! But fear not- it is not as tricky or maddening as you might imagine and did not take that long at all to do. Add them to the juice with a good splash of olive oil, plenty of salt and pepper and squash them down gently with the back of a spoon. Add more oil and orange juice, until you have enough liquid to cover the cranberries and then you are done!


Lay out your thinly-slice puntarelle and the orange segments decoratively and then spoon the cranberries and the dressing on top evenly. Leave them to soak in and macerate together for at least 10 minutes... or as I said earlier, even longer still- it will be fine for a couple of hours if you keep it chilled.

Just before serving, add a handful of mint leaves... leave them whole and sprinkle the whole salad again with salt and pepper, drizzle it with a little more olive oil... and now- also a light drizzle of honey on top to eliminate any residual bitterness... and serve with a broad smile!


Once you have set it out on the table and everyone has admired its prettiness, give it a gently toss before serving and lo-and-behold... it still looks gorgeous all the same!

This is refreshing and tasty- and fear not- you will not notice any bitterness... and neither will you have any problems digesting this whatsoever... I finished eating this whole dish all by myself a couple of hours ago and am still alive and well... and smiling! And I want to share some smiles with all of you too, which I am hoping you will have if you give this a try!


It really IS a thing of beauty!

Cranberry Good!

Crostata di Sfoglia con Mirtilli Americani, Cachi, Noci & Pistacchi
Cranberry & Persimmon Puff-Pastry Pie, with Walnuts & Pistachio

Not being American, of course I do not celebrate Thanksgiving... I mean, I am a British.born Sicilian, living in Frankfurt, Germany after all! But I Am thankful of the fact that we get cranberries over here at this time of year!

So having had the chance to buy some fresh cranberries at the indoor market yesterday, I decided to make a simple little pie that maybe one or two of my American friends might consider making for THEIR Thanksgiving- after all, it IS the holiday that is all about sharing!

I decided to pick up some sweet persimmons to combine with the tart and tangy cranberries- they are in-season now and seemed like a logical choice to me! The walnuts and pistachio were an afterthought to be honest... that I am so glad that I had! They made the whole thing so much better... and prettier too!
I needed 2 persimmons and about the same amount, volume-wise in cranberries, to make my medium sized pie... which would have yielded 6 slices, had I not used the funky dish that I did... which gave me 4 nicer, larger slices instead- haha!


Seasonal and simple and perfect to pair with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, or custard, or whipped cream... or to enjoy as it is- this is a no-fuss way to spread a few smiles- and to earn a few compliments!


The filling needs to be prepared in advance, so I chose to make mine last night- although an hour in advance in order for it to have time to cool off before filling is fine. It simply needs to be cool, because otherwise, if you add the filling to a pastry that consists of so much butter whilst it is hot... well... just don't go there! You can imagine, I hope!

So, I chose to cut the cranberries in half so that they would not need to cook so long and so that the fruit stayed nice and firm later after baking. I chopped the persimmons up into a similar-sized dice.


I popped the cranberries and persimmon into a saucepan, added a splash of Cointreau (optional- you can also use a splash of orange juice), and let them simmer down and cook in their own juices. After they had begun to soften, I added about a tablespoon of cinnamon and sugar to taste. It all depends on how sweet the persimmons are, how sweet your tooth is... and how tart those cranberries are! So... sweeten to taste!


Once they have simmered away for 10-15 minutes, until all of the cranberries white interiors have become red, turn off the hat and let it sit and cool... and that's basically it! Like I said- I made mine the night before, which makes assembling an absolutely stress-free operation the morning after.


I added the walnuts to the cold filling and stirred them in, so that they would get slightly moist and coated, rather than having had them cook along and soften-up... I wanted them to be nice and crunchy!


I had this pretty dish, which I decided to bake my pie in, but of course any shape will do- just cut the pastry a little larger than the base, so that you will have a nicely raised crust around the edges.


After that, it was simply a case of lining the dish, filling the base, arranging the walnuts decoratively and adding a border of bright green, ground pistachio to make it even more colorful and delicious!


I baked it in a pre-heated oven at 180°C for around 45 minutes on a lower shelf to make sure that the base baked-through thoroughly before the top began to fluff up and brown-off... and was rewarded with this beautiful pie that is absolutely as pretty as a picture!


I would imagine that there will be plenty of smiles if you serve up this to your families, friends and loved ones this Thanksgiving... and that you will be smiling yourself if its all your own work! Well- except for that puff-pastry of course... haha!