Monday, 27 July 2009

Pasta alla Norma

Pasta alla Norma is one of widely loved pasta dishes originating in Sicilia (city of Catania to be exact). According to the legend, the name Norma comes from Bellini's opera Norma. the composer hails from Catania and the fans who were taken by the beauty and the excellence of this opera starting to use "alla Norma" to express something particularly well crafted, and this includes this recipe.

Pasta alla norma (Sicilia)

80-120g of dry pasta a person, depending on appetite/custom*
for 4 people (with 320-480g pasta)
2 slender type aubergene, cleaned and sliced in 1cm thickness then quartered
3-4 shallots or 1 onion, finely chopped
2 large cloves of garlic
olive oil (to fry, as needed)
6-7 firm, ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped(peeled if prefered)
salt and pepper
Ricotta salata**
fresh basil leaves
coarse granuled salt

Soak the aubergene chunks in a large bowl of cold water, sprinkle some salt and leave for about 30min.-1hour

Rinse the aubergene, pat dry very well.

Fry the aubergene in hot oil until golden, taking care not to burn. Drain the excess oil on an absorbent paper and keep warm.

Sautè the shallot/onion and garlic until tender and golden in a large skillet.

Add the chopped tomatoes, season with salt and pepper.

Cook further until excess liquids are somewhat thickened.

Toss together piping hot pasta cooked al dente, tomato mixture, aubergene.

Dress the pasta with chopped basil leaves and freshly grated ricotta salata generously and serve hot.

*use your choice of pasta shape, short or long. My personal favourites are orecchiette, penne or fusilli.

**ricotta salata is a Sicilian specialty, much more solid and much less moist than regular ricotta and salted. If not available aged pecorino (ideally Siciliano) or parmigiano reggiano can be used.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Pasta Frolla (Tart base/Pie crust dough)

This is another essential recipe for dessert making, you can fill the shell with cream filling(crema pasticcera etc.), then top with fruit, nuts, chocolate chips or anything you fancy and you will have a lovely treat! Alternatively, this is also a basic sugar/butter biscuit recipe, you can make a little extra to be cutted with a special cutter, then coated with various glazes for a decoration on top.
You can also freeze the prepared dough in advance for your convenience!

Pasta Frolla

300g flour
100g cold butter or lard, or mixture.
100g sugar
1 egg

Pour the flour into a large bowl.
Beat the egg in a separate smaller bowl
Cut the butter in small cubes, or drop cold lard in little drops, rub them into flour until the mixture becomes like fine bread crumbs.
Add the sugar and beaten egg, knead vigorously until the ingredients are thoroughly blended in and attains a soft but compact, slightly crumbly texture.
Make into a ball, wrap in a plastic sheet and let it rest in the fridge for half an hour.
On a smooth flat work surface roll out the dough with a rolling pin. Form the dough into desired size.
When you bake a larger pie, you can blind bake the crust to ensure a more even result. Prick some holes on the surface of the dough with a fork. Line with a wax paper, then spread loosely a single layer of dried beans (or you can obtain "pie pebbles" manufactured just for this purpose from a specialty shop) onto the surface, bake in the oven at about 200°C for 15minutes, or until the crust takes on a light colour (not too dark!).
The excess bits and pieces can be used for decorations on top, or baked into biscuits.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Crema Pasticcera (custard)

This is an essential recipe for any dessert making, so verstile and delicious as a filling for tarts, pies, cream puffs, crepes, doughnuts, base for ice cream, or as a dessert sauce...if you can manage not to eat it all with a spoon while you are making it!! :-D

1 heaped tbsp flour
100g sugar
4 yolks
500ml milk (room temperature)
a few drops of vanilla essence

Beat the york in a double boiler.
Add about 400ml of milk, sugar and vanilla, turn on the heat and whisk.
In a separate cup whisk the flour briskly in the remaining 100ml of milk until the flour is dissolved. Add into the double boiler. Mix well.
Heat the mixture on low heat, stirring often, until the cream thickens.

If the double boiler is not available, you can
1. Layer a smaller sauce pan over the larger sauce pan filled with boiling water
2. Use a thick bottomed saucepan with extremely low heat, constantly stirring from the bottom, taking care not to have it boil over or burn at the bottom. (If the cream starts to get overheated take off the saucepan from the heat for some seconds)

Further tips

For a liquidier cream for making a sauce, reduce the amount of flour.

The cream can be further flavoured with real vanilla bean pod*, lemon or orange zest, cinnamon, cocoa powder, rum or amaretto.

*make a slit length wise on the pod, scrape out the seeds into the egg yolk at the beginning. Put the pod in as well, just as the cream begins to thicken, take out the pods.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Homemade pasta

Nothing beats freshly made homemade pasta, and it is actually quite simple to make!! Of course if you have an electric mixer and an Imperial type pasta cutter it makes the process much easier but even without them it is not a mission impossible, until two years ago when we bought them, I used to do it all by hands quite regularly, and it's really worth the effort, also you can make enough for 2-3 dinners in one go as it keeps in the fridge for several days!!

1 egg to every 100g of flour
Have some water in a little cup/jug handy

1. Kneading

-with an electric mixer

Put the flour in, then make a slight dent and crack the eggs into the dent.
Turn on the mixer, first on slower, then turn it up gradually. If the dough is too dry, add a little water, a few drops at a time. The dough must remain full of body, and shouldn't turn sticky or runny. When the consistency of the dough stabilises turn the mixer up to a vigorous cycle near full speed. Let it knead for about 5-10 minutes, checking intermittently, until the dough is smooth, elastic and very compact.

-by hand
Before you start, keep extra flour handy, make sure your hands are dry and covered with flour.
Pile the flour on a clean, smooth, flat work surface, thoroughly dusted with flour. Make a well in the centre. Beat the eggs, and carefully pour the mixture into the well. Carefully let the top edges of the flour into the eggs, then smoothing up the flour from the outer sides towards the centre to guide into the eggs, let it slowly incorporate into the pile of flour. If the egg spew out don't panic, swiftly push the "lava" into the flour and continue to work. Once the eggs are roughly amalgamated into the flour, start kneading vigorously, thoroughly from every angle, utilising your body weight. If the dough is too dry and crumbly, add just a few drops of water (and no more) at a time, to make the dough smooth enough to work with but never let it become sticky or runny. Sprinkle generous amount of extra flour on the work surface as needed. Continue to knead in the same manner for at least 20 minutes, until the dough is elastic, smooth and compact.

If you are rolling out the dough by hand,
Cover the dough with a plastic film, and let it rest for about an hour. This resting will "tame" the elasticity and make flattening process easier.

2. Flattening

Again prepare a clean, smooth, flat surface to work, strewn with flour and smear more flour onto your hand as well, and more flour ready nearby.

-with a pasta cutter

Secure the pasta cutter on the work surface.
Separate the dough into smaller pieces in order to fit them through the cutter easily and evenly. First Roll each pieces out on the thickest setting.
Narrow down a couple of notches and repass each pieces. If it gets too long, cut in half.
Continue until each piece is about 1,5mm thick sheets for lasagne or filled pasta (ravioli, tortellini etc.), 1mm for tagliatelle, trenette etc.

-by hand

Separate the dough in a few pieces. With a rolling pin flatten out each piece evenly, gradually working into thin sheets, 1,5 mm for lasagne or filled pasta (ravioli, tortellini), 1mm for tagliatelle, trenette etc. Do not worry if the dough spreads into irregular shape, in the end the odd ends can be sliced off, and there is always a way to utilise them. Make sure to cover the work surface with additional flour from time to time as the dough absorbs the loose flour.

3. Cutting:

Tagliatelle/Trenette: With a pasta cutter, choose the size of the pasta form and cut each sheets. By hand, slice them with a sharp, fairly large, smooth bladed knife into desired width. They are best air dried first before being put away, if you have a rack, that will be ideal so every strip will be aired all around.

Lasagne: if they are reasonably regular size, leave as is or slice them into roughly the same sizes.

Ravioli: use a round ravioli cutter, to be filled and folded over in half moon shape, or alternatively put spoonful of filling with even spaces directly on to the sheets, then cut through in between the filling (making sure there is enough space around the filling to secure the edges all around) to make square shapes.

Extra remains: It is normal for you to be left with some odd bits and pieces. They also have a "status" and are called "maltagliate" in Italian. If they are rather large slice them into tagliatelle like strips, and enjoy with sugo, ragù etc. just as you would with other pasta.

4.Hang dry

Let the cut pasta dry for about half an hour, a special rack shown in the above picture is an ideal equipment, however you can also use a rack from your oven as well.

5.. Storing:

Coat the pasta with dry flour as you put them in a container that closes tightly. If you stack lasagne sheet or ravioli, use a sheet of wax paper in between.

6. Cooking:

Fresh pasta cooks very fast. After dropping the pasta into generous amount of boiling water, two minutes will suffice for the pasta to be ready.
For filled pasta, watch carefully and scoop each pieces out as they float onto the surface. Do not overcrowd the water so as not to affect the temperature too drastically.
To make lasagne, no need for precooking the pasta. Lay them directly between the layer of sauces and cheeses. Make sure the surface of the pasta is covered completely with the sauce before baking, so it will be cooked properly.

Friday, 10 July 2009

Alfredo who?

As it happens to many ethnic cuisines, “la cucina italiana” has met considerable amount of “interpretations” and modifications once arriving in other parts of the world, taking its own form and becoming quite different from what the Italians actually cook in this country. Today I would like to talk about some of the popular dishes widely known as “Italian” in many other countries, and the truth about it, perhaps some of you are in for a surprise!!

Spaghetti with meatballs: as I mentioned in the previous entry, Italians are not big on “one pot dishes”. Thus they don’t take to the idea of throwing in meatballs (which are considered as a part of “Secondi”, or second course) onto their plate of pasta, which is a part of primi, or first course. They would much rather have a simple pasta with tomato sauce (or other type of lighter condiment) then afterwards take a plate of meatballs separately.

Manicotti: Okay, large tube shaped pasta stuffed with ricotta and spinach is a popular dish also in Italy, but they are called cannelloni, considered as a variation of the meat stuffed versions. The word “manicotti” is not an appetizing one for Italian diners, as it only means “sewer pipes”.

Fettuccini Alfredo: This vastly popular dish is practically unknown in Italy. According to its legend, it is not entirely a foreign invention, as it is said to have been created at a Roman restaurant called “Alfredo’s” who was catering for some foreign VIPs, but the idea never really took off locally while it had been embraced with enthusiasm abroad. You are most likely to draw a bemused blank look if you try to order this dish in Italy.

Chicken Parmigiano/Chicken Parmesan: this is a pure foreign invention, I have seen some specialty recipes in which parmigiano was used in a chicken dish in different ways, but this “standard” version, a breaded chicken cutlet doused in tomato sauce and grated parmigiano thrown on top of a bed of pasta doesn’t exist, for the same reason as spaghetti with meatballs, the idea simply doesn’t sit well with the Italian diners.

Caesar’s salad
: again a pure foreign invention!! Some of the touristy restaurants may have heard of it and try to serve them, but chances are you will be getting their own version, something quite different… Italians prefer to enjoy their salad in a simple fashion, just with a good quality olive oil and salt, pepper and perhaps a dash of balsamic vinegar. Also noted that they do not have such thing as “Italian dressing” either!!

Panini: the terminology Panini, or Panino as a singular form, means ANY kind of sandwiches, not the specialty flattened grilled oblong sandwiches which are considered as “Panini” elsewhere. Sandwiches can be grilled but frankly I have never seen this particular form of so called “Panini” sold in any takeaway places. Also the simple sandwiches made with a white square bread cut in a triangle form are called “tramezzini”.

Marinara sauce: “Salsa marinara” exist but it is interpreted quite loosely. As the word “marinara” suggest something related to the sea, many recipes include some seafood like anchovy, sardine, tuna, clams etc. Some are type of sauce which can be conserved well to be served to the sailors upon the sea. Simple tomato sauce is commonly called “sugo al pomodoro”.

Garlic bread: Everyone’s favourite companion to pizzas and pasta, or is it really? You may find yourself in need of a good explanation when you want a slice in an restaurant in Italy. Bruschetta and Crostini, both grilled or toasted pieces of bread with various toppings are very popular, but a toasted bread simply smeared with butter and garlic isn’t quite the tradition of the Italian dining.

These are just a few example of the truth and myth about Italian foods. Of course some of the foreign inventions are delicious in their own rights, but it is very important to know the difference, especially when you decide to visit this country. You will be in for a whole new experience!!

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Tips: dining out in Italy!

It is now amidst high summer holiday season and some of you may decide to visit Italy. As you can imagine there are many myths and misinterpretations concerning “Italian food” abroad, and I would like to talk about a few things so everyone can enjoy the real Italian dining to the max when you guys make it here…

Today I would like to share a few pointers about dining in the restaurants and trattorias. The Italians have a few particular customs they tend to adhere to, and when you eat out it comes in handy to be aware of them, not only in a formal place but also in a casual dining atmosphere.

Firstly, they are not very accustomed to eating one big heap of “one pot meal”, they traditionally eat their meals in series of courses in relatively small portions. Roughly they are divided into

-Antipasto (hors d’oeuvres)

-Primi (usually pasta or risotto, or similar dishes)

-Secondi (dishes based on meat, seafood, or frittata/omelette etc.)

-Contorni (vegetable based side dish, often served alongside “secondi”, but on separate plates)

-Frutta (fruit) or Dolci (dessert)

Average everyday suppers at home are simpler, usually 2-3 courses (Primi & Secondi OR Contorni, plus either antipasto, frutta or dolci), and on a big formal occasion there will be many more courses to be added to the above.

In addition, there are a few key points which I would like to remind you….

-Portions of pasta dishes are much smaller than you would expect, as it is not considered as a “main dish” and they assume the diner will be having something else after you finish the pasta.

-I have seen some confusions between foreign tourists and waiters, as the diner asks the waiter “what does it come with?” when they order a dish of “Secondi”. A plate of secondi (for example a cutlet, steak, roast etc.) does not come with anything, it is served alone. For a “side” you need to order “contorni” separately!!

-speaking of “sides”, tossed/garden salads are usually considered as “Contorni”, not as a starter like it is believed in many part of English speaking countries. Same thing as soup, soup is usually considered as a part of “Primi” for light eaters for whom pasta or risotto is too heavy.

-unless you are eating at a restaurant catering mainly to the foreign tourists (these joints are to be avoided at all cost!! Food are generic at their best, and prices inflated!), do not ask for things like spaghetti with meatballs, chicken parmesan, manicotti, fettuccini alfredo, garlic bread etc. You will draw a bemused look as they are not at all authentic Italian repartoire. (I will speak of this more in separate entry!!)

-also a few things when you eat at sit-in pizzerias… pizzas are mostly sold in one size, one pizza per person. (they are much lighter than, say, American counterparts.)

-At tables they tend to eat their pizzas with knife and fork, instead of manhandling them. This rule only applies in a restaurant though, there are many people munch on takeaway pizzas on the streets, or at home you can also pick up a slice bare handed.

-There are many variety of pizza Bianca (white pizzas) which are made without tomato sauce. They are very tasty and highly recommended!!

-If you are in a mood for a snack during the day, try some of the pasticceria (bakery for sweets), fornaio (bakery for various bread and related savoury treats), take away pizzeria, and gelateria (ice cream shops), which are to be found everywhere!! There is absolutely no need or reason for heading towards one of those ubiquitous McDonalds outlets!!!

Try to keep these in mind when you are in Italy, and if any of you guys have more suggestions and ideas let me know, I will add to the list!! Buon appetito!