Like most Italian people who cook, I often make my own. Fresh pasta is a completely different product from ‘regular’ dried durum wheat pasta, the one sold in every supermarket; and it is infinitely better than store-bought fresh pasta, unless of course you have a good pastificio artigianale down the road. For these reasons, if you have never eaten it, you really should give this (or any other recipe) a try. Once you learn the basics, it is easy to make: I have tested this on a few friends, who asked me to teach them how to make pasta: they could not believe the sumptuous dish of pappardelle al ragù we produced after a mere couple of hours work.
I have to admit it. I am a serial spice buyer. I need to have them all. I cannot read about a spice and not have it. I want spices with the avidity of a collector.
There is a childish pleasure in rummaging through the messy closet that contains them all, in their unappealing plastic bags. At my mum’s home spices dwell in a neat, dedicated part of a drawer. Each of them is stored in a tiny tin or glass jar, collected over the years. Many spices have been there for ages, literally. I know my mum shares my fascination for spices, but quite frankly there is not that much room for spices in an Italian kitchen, so she buys them and they stay there until they grow tasteless. They have to fight for space with dried herbs, which my parents not only like, but also enjoy foraging themselves: one year I counted eight types of dried oregano, then there are wild juniper berries, myrtus, rosemary, sage, and let us not even start with caraway (which nobody likes, but is real fun to pick up). Now and again my mother will venture in a spiced recipe, with mixed outcomes: I still remember a vegetable strudel with coriander seeds she had read about somewhere. The coriander was whole, and it was the only spice, and it was a lot. I thought I hated coriander for years, and wondered how people could eat it. I did however like curry. I did not even know that curry was not ‘one’ spice. It came in jars, sometimes it was more pungent, others a bit bland, and it had the brightest colour. There was one dish we made with it: a Talismano dish with chicken and prawns cooked in coconut milk (we always used real coconut because you could not find canned coconut milk) and curry, served with ‘Indian rice’, o ‘riso all’indiana’ – which I was convinced referred to native Americans, for some reason, when I was a child.
A constant thought, in these days. I hope Japan will be able to recover soon. And we will be thinking about its fabulous food, cinema, literature, design, technological innovations again, when we think of Japan.
Hourensou no gomaae (Spinach with sesame sauce)
Ingredients: (serves two)
two big bunch of spinach (about 300 grams)
equipment: a sushi mat
2 tablespoon white sesame seeds
2-3 teaspoon tamari
1/2 tablespoon mirin
2 teaspoon sugar
Method: Remove the roots from the spinach but keep all the stalk, and keep them in bundle form as much as possible. Wash in cold water until no grit is left. Bring a wide pan of water to the boil, drop in the spinach, blanch for about a minute and drain. Cool under cold, running water. Squeeze gently with your hand. Have a sushi mat ready. Arrange the spinach neatly on it, with all the stalks on one side. Fold the tips so that the ends will be more even. Roll the sushi mat, press gently with your fingers to get a squarish log. Press well and leave for a while slightly inclined so that the water can run away. When water is no longer dripping off it, put the roll within its sushi mat in the fridge until needed.
For the sauce: if not toasted, toast your sesame seeds: heat a small heavy pan, add the sesame seeds and gently roll the pan until they start to pop. Take care because at this stage they go from toasted to burned in a second.
Put the toasted sesame seeds in a mortar and crush them with a circular movement. Add sugar and crush a bit more; add mirin and soy sauce; taste and adjust the flavours to your liking. It should be definitely sweet, definitely salty and very flavorful. To serve, arrange some sauce on a small dish, cut the spinach log using a sharp knife in two – three pieces, discarding the extremities if they are not neat, and arrange on top of the sauce.
I had a very special birthday to celebrate this weekend, so a very special dessert was in order. As you can imagine, turning to my Ladurée book was almost inevitable. Shining among the complex pastries, I was immediately attracted by the gorgeous millefeuille with raspberries. Millefoglie (a thousand leaves) is one of my favourite desserts ever, maybe because it is difficult to find it really good. When I was a child there was one place to go in Padova, Graziati. Made with thick, but not too thick, crema pasticcera, filling a generous, buttery puff pastry, I loved it very crunchy, of course, but there was a twisted pleasure in the puff pastry starting to get soggy and melting into the cream, leaf by leaf. I loved it as much as I disliked the really soggy version you’ll find in most places, with the too dense, chemically tasting filling. In Milan there are a couple of places where they’ll fill it to order. In Southern Italy they make a lighter version, filled with creme chantilly, and with the puff pastry higher and fluffier, often with a layer of sponge in between. Also this one can be lovely. When I moved to Wales I thought that a custard slice was a local equivalent – huge mistake! It is the closest equivalent, but it is like comparing tinned ravioli with hand made agnolotti. I basically lived years without millefoglie, and even here, where there is an abundance of gorgeous cakes, it is not a common dessert. Laduree version spoke of French luxury, with the puff pastry not only compressed while cooking, but also caramelized, and the filling being made by a small amount of very rich crème Mousseline (pastry cream mixed with butter) and plump, tart raspberries.
Today it is International Women’s Day. I have always found it very depressing that we need to be remembered and protected and honored on a special occasion. But it is a fact that many women do not have the respect and recognition they deserve as human beings, and we need all the attention we can get, also from ourselves, to start with.
I have not seen my grandmother in a long while, and since then, she has been very ill. The two things are not strictly related, of course, but I cannot help thinking how much my life is different from my mother and grandmother’s life.
Have you ever tried sprouting beans? I hadn’t until about a month ago. I was intimidated, with all the times I had forgotten beans into their soaking water and they fermented, by the expensive and complicated looking sprouting kits at the organic store, and, last but not least, by the fact that some sprouts are poisonous. I have never understood how sprouting works, other than it is an incredibly complex process, involving structural changes in the biochemistry of a seed, which means that what you eat is going to be different. In most cases, better.