Monthly Archives: January 2012

Meltingly Tender Fennel Bake

 

What Is The Long and Short Of It?

The short Of It

1 large brown onion – roughly chopped

4 cloves of garlic, finely sliced

A good glug of Olive oil

4 bulbs of fennel

2 handfuls of grated Parmesan

100 gm of butter

100 gm of flour 800 ml of milk

Nutmeg (freshly grated please) 

A few peppercorns and a bay leaf

Salt

Rosemary, finely chopped

Splash of white wine if you have some hanging around

 Put the onion and garlic and finely chopped rosemary in a large frypan with the olive oil. Turn the heat onto low and cook for 6 minutes, stirring occasionaly, not allowing any color.

Meanwhile cut the fennel bulb into long wedges and put aside the frilly leaves for later. After your onion and garlic is fragrant and translucent add the fennel wedges. Stir to coat with onioney oil. Add a pinch of salt. Splash in about 1/4 cup of water or white wine if you happen to have some and turn the heat to the lowest it will go, cover with a fitting lid and allow to infuse with flavor and soften. After 10 minutes turn off heat but leave the lid on. The fennel will go right ahead and get more tender as it sits in its owner little sauna.

For the bechemel sauce; (don’t be intimidated: its just a white sauce)

 Put a pot on the stove with the milk, a bay leaf, a few pepper corns and any tough trimmings from the fennel and onion. Bring to almost boiling. Turn off and strain.

Melt butter over a low heat till liquid. Bung in the flour, all in one go – Bam! Whisk till smooth. Whisk slowly for 1 minute, allowing flour to cook a little. Add a ladle of milk. Be careful, it may hiss at you. Whisk till smooth. Repeat a ladlefull at a time until all the milk is added. Cook 5 minutes, whisking gently. Add half the grated parmesan, a good grating of nutmeg and adjust the salt as necessary. Tada! Bechemel…

Mix Fennel and all its juices into the bechemel and pour into a baking dish with a lid. Failing that, some foil. Sprinkle with other parmesan and bake at 160 about 40 minutes. Finely Chop fennel leaves (or snip with scissors) and garnish just before serving. Devour.

 

 The Long Of It

Fennel is one of my favorite vegetables, and a poor misunderstood little lady she is.

Sure if you chew on a large hunk you may find it to taste far too aniseedy for your liking, but dont be dissauded. Slice it thinly and dress it with a little olive oil and lemon juice.

 Cook it slowly with your onion and garlic to add extra flavor to the base of your soup.

Buy a nice small one and cut little chunks for a perfect addition to your cheese fondue.. What you dont make fondue? Ill show you how soon!

Bake fennel slowly for a sweet caramelized vegetable similar to whole baked onions. The limits are endless and I encourage you to start buying these pale green beauties and give them a go.

This dish is a great way to start. As the title suggests its meltingly tender, rich and creamy like the best kind of potato bake. The fennel has a wonderful sublte flavor, a hint of aniseed, so fleeting you may not even place it. If fennel happens to be a little pricey when you make this dish you can (and I often do) replace half the fennel with chunks of potato. I served this dish most recently to three Italians and two americans who am am staying with in Sicily and it was one of those moments where two bites in everyone was insisting on the recipe and buy the end Peter and Dylis, who grow vegetable on their farm, had decided that growing fennel was an idea worth persuing. It works beautifully as a side dish and is wonderfully warm on those chilly windswept days. Enjoy.

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The Day Of The Ricotta

Saturday was to be The Day Of The Ricotta.

 Friday afternoon we went ona little venture to organize the milk. In the Sicilian countryside this is not as quick as it may seem. We are shown the cows. There are small gambolling calfs and large cynical mothers who regard us through half open eyes as they methodically chew their cud. Next we are taken inside where the farmers wife pulls a bottle of limoncello from the cupboard and puts out little plastic cups. It is only four in the afternoon, but you dont serve coffee this late in the day. And so we sit sipping on the tartly sour lemon liquer as we are shown photos of their children as babies and told that they have relatives in Australia and ask Miki how it is going on her farm. We tell them that we are going to make ricotta tomorrow and they nod solemnly. The farmer looks like you would imagine a typical Italian farmer to look. Large belly, larger apron and a booming voice. Apon hearing that I am a chef he promptly tells Miki that he would like me to come and stay at his house, just for one day, to teach his wife to cook. His wife hits him around the head. We leave a huge plastic bottle for the early morning milking the next day and head back to the farm.

The Day Of The Ricotta dawns. After a hot sweet black coffee and a bowl of yoghurt with homegrown oranges we head out to do some work before the ricotta making begins. There is a lot to do on the farm. This morning we are finishing varnishing the house of the donkeys. This involves climbing a ladder balanced somewhat precariously on a large several feet above the ground while Dylis holds the ladder in place and I use one hand to to paint, the other to hold myself steady using a nearby tree branch. After the top of the little cabin is varnished to within an inch of its life we get the news.

The milk has arrived.. The house I am staying in is over 200 years old, renovated and tastefully decorated. There is a large open kitchen, windows looking out over the vegetable garden. The countertops are sicilian handpainted ceramique blasted onto huge sleps of lava stone from etna. There are huge polished wooden drawers with a smooth tile floor and a little wood burning stove. Their are forget-me-not blue lace curtains crocheted by the amazing and multi-talented Gueseppina. For me it is a dream kitchen. But this is not where we will be making the ricotta.

 Enter the laundry. This is where the ricotta has been made for an age. There is a large ring gas burner atop which is placed an enormous pot filled with the fresh milk. Stage one involves waiting. We wait as the milk comes to temperature. As we wait we are shown what the ricotta is traditionally shaped in. Little handwoven baskets. But they are not used anymore due to hygiene reasons but nevertheless still adorn the walls of the room. Standing around the slowly heating milk are seven of us. Miki and Sylvio. Our hosts. Miki’s mother Guesepina, peering expertly through her glasses at the pot. Dylis and Peter, my fellow woofers. They are from Cape Cod in American where they passionately (and successfully) grow vegetables despite their soil being made almost entirely from sand. Lucia, the maid. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, there is a maid. But not in the regular sense. Rather she is a friend who comes round twice a week to give their big old home a thorough cleaning. Apon arriving she is invited in, sat down with a cup of tea whereapon her and Miki have a half an hour conversation before she cleans the bejusus out of the house. Not that it isnt always spotless, anyway. But besides helping them clean apparently when ricotta making time comes around Lucia helps with the cheese making. She makes it at her own house and each time they are comparing techniques and tips. And me. The cheese-loving chef from Australia who is about to see ricotta being made for the first time.

 

The rennet is added and once the milk is brought slowly to 40 degrees a lid is placed atop, the heat is turned off and we all file out to go set the table. Setting the table today does not just involve placing glasses and plates, cutlery and a bottle of wine. Sylvio pulls a large sausage shaped hunk of cured meat reverently from the fridge and with great precision begins to carve it in wafer thin slices. He asks me if I know bresaola, the cured meat in question. I do. It is wonderful indeed. He asks me if I know carpaccio. I do. But I know it as seared (or totally raw) beef sliced paper thin and topped with oil, shaved parmesan, pepper and rocket. He explains that originally carpaccio was made with bresaola, the cured meat he is currently slicing. This I did NOT know…

We squeeze lemon all over the bresaola, drizzle with olive oil from their farm and a good grating of black pepper. Several layers later we sprinkle with shaved parmesan and place on the table. Photo’s are taken. And with that we all head back to the cheese making room.

The milk has set into a jelly like consistency. The jelly is first sliced into pieces inside the pot and then stirred. The heat is back and and once again we watch the slowly heating milk. Lucia is stirring, stirring. Boiling hot water is poured into the continuesly stirred milk. Now the contents of the pot have turned opaque instead of white and the time is near. Minutes later Lucia reaches her arms into the pot and pulls from deep within the liquid a soft white cheese. But, we learn, this is not the ricotta. Ricotta in Italian, literally means ‘recooked’ and is a method for extracting further cheese from the whey, the leftover liquid… I never knew that! The first cheese, the curd that is here called Tuma is pulled apart and placed into tubs.

We are all given chunks in bowls with plastic spoons and taste the still warm curd. It is quite soft but a little bland. A good base for making things, i think. Nevertheless it is delicious. Like slightly chewy warm milk. Now the ricotta begins. The liquid is heated for the third time. We take turns stirring and Lucia checks the consistency with her spoon from time to time. She takes a spoonfull and pours it back into the pot from a height. Miki and Sylvio have a thermometer but Lucia can see by sight. Or so it seems. Once the milk reaches about 60 degrees in goes 5 litres of cold milk, a glass of lemon juice and the salt. Again we wait. The pressure builds. There are murmers in Italian. What is wrong, we ask. It seems to be taking too long. Wait, wait, says Lucia. The tension in the room becomes palpable as ‘tiny tiny ricotta’ begins to form on the surface of the liquid. Small beads solidying whiteness. But is is enough? This pot is aluminium and it is much better to use stainless, they say. Lucia looks nervous. Gueseppina kneels down, almost eye to eye with the top of the pot and nods. The bead become bigger. Its forming! Suddenly everyone is yelling and hugging each other and yelling Ricotta! Ricotta! Just as quickly silence falls as we see Lucia’s face. Perhaps we cheered to soon. It still may not come good. Now the tension is like the set milk. You could slice it with a knife. You could put it on a plate and watch it wobble… The whole surface begins to coagulate and gently, gently, Lucia pulls the curd inwards and it continues to form. And yes. It is ok. A collective sigh of release. We take turns lifting the soft warm ricotta into little draining pots where the water slips away and more portions are served out which we ferry to the table. And we sit and eat a bowl of hot ricotta with fresh bread. It is soft and slightly salty and oh-so decadant. To be sitting at a table and eating a bowl of fresh cheese. Those of us that eat meat dive into the carpaccio and everyone sips on local wine and after we eat homemade almond biscotta with sweet moscatto.

Ah warm ricotta, it is nice to meet you…

 

Note: my camera is out of action so all photos are courtesy or Longneck Road Productions, my fellow wwoofer Peter.


Countrywards

After three months of being a tourist I am beggining to get itchy fingers. I dont remember the last time I went 3 months without  working or studying. I like to learn and be active. I have discovered that in the last few weeks that I seem to fall into a hole of laziness if I do not keep myself occupied. Not really my cup of tea. And so, without further ado, I head countrywards.

Wwoofing is a worldwide program that involves staying on small organic farms and working  in exchange for food and a bed. In the process you get to meet people, exchange cululture, learn about organic farming and whatever else your particular farm may be doing. In each country there is a list that you recieve apon joining and within can be found a description of all the farms that take wwoofers and you can contact them individually.

I contacted four in Sicily that sounded wonderful and recieved an immediate reply from one I was super excited about. A married couple and the lady’s mother owned a farm where they had 6 dogs, 4 cats, 2 donkeys, fruit trees and olives… They have a woodfired oven which they use to make bread and pizza and sometimes they make cheese.

And now I am here and it glorious.

 My hosts are named Sylvio and Miki and Miki’s mother Gueseppina  and together they run this rocky sicilian farm. They have a huge 200 year old renovated house and like anywhere, there is plenty to do on the farm…

 There are two other wwoofers here, a retired American couple from Cape Cod, who escape the winter snows each year by Wwoofing somewhere warm. They have their own farm on the Cape where they too have a renovated old house and grow fruits and vegetables which they sell to some very lucky local restuarants.

  Guiseppina is 74 and one of the most sprightly ladys I have ever met. She cooks, cleans, gardens, irons for the locals, helps with the animals and keeps their beautiful home as clean as a pin, all with a huge smile on her face and a warm laugh.

Since I arrived we have learnt to feed the donkeys, pruned, cleared fallen trees, burnt brush, collected firewood, cooked many incredible meals with many exclamations of, ‘Buono! Buono!’ and occasionally, ‘Buonissimo!” and even sometimes ‘Bella Sape’ which is Sicilian for ‘Beautiful food!’

  Guiseppina speaks not a word of English but we have been communicating with the help of wild hand gestures, some mutual words and the occasional use of the dictionary till we arrive at our final point whereapon we both start yelling, ‘Capito! Capito!’ … ‘I understand!’

 Two days ago I made some homemade pasta using a rolling pin. I was a little nervous for two reasons. First of all because I have never made pasta using just a rolling pin (I normally use a pasta machine) and second because I was making pasta for some full blooded Italians and the Nonna of the house…

  They loved it! They told me to stay forever and never leave and everyone was laughing and the wine was local and plentiful and it was a grande moment indeed.

 The morning starts with fresh espresso that fills the kitchen with the rich smells of roasting coffee. After our morning work Sylvio takes us for a tour of some the local scenery. Nearby there is a large estate owned by a Baron. I kid you not, a baron. On top of the hill there is a small castle that we go to see.

Let me paint a picture for you. It is technically still winter and when the wind blows from the north you can feel the chill. But today the sun is shining and the north wind has stoppped and before long we are taking off our big coats. We stop the car by a gate and begin the walk up a long driveway bordered by fields of coarse brush, tenacious little flowers and flourishing wild fennel. At the top of the hill is a small castle. Sylvio tells us that hundreds of years ago the baron would come to this small castle-atop-the-hill, climb to the top and from there he would use his spyglass to select beautiful girls that would then be sent to his house. Or so the story goes. On each side of the castle there are rose bushes that are still hibarnating but apparently each bush is a different colored rose. You can see all the way to the sea from here and many of the land you can see is owned by the Baron who doesnt even live here. He visits in the summer but normally he lives in Syracuse. There is a huge old olive tree that I fall promptly in love with. It is gnarled and twisted and filled with holes and has so much character I feel I could spend a summer reading while sitting in the nook of one of its wrinkled branches.

  Next up is the Barons summer house. It is vast and ancient with sloping fields of olive trees and an orangeria (a garden full of orange trees for strolling in) a pool the size of a small ocean and beautiful little garden nooks. There is a huge old olive press that was pulled by a donkey back in the day. And nobody lives here most of the year. There are workers to look after the olive groves but other than that it is mostly abandoned. It is breathtakingly gorgeous.. The only reason we are allowed to see any of this is because Sylvio seems to know the caretaker. At least I think he is the caretaker…

After walking around with our mouths open for half an hour we get back in the car to go to see some 4000 year old tombs. They are really just big holes dug into the side of the mountain but it is a little crazy to be inside something that people were buried in over 4000 years ago. We find 4 little spears of wild asparagus and gently take them back to the house.

Ah Sicily.

I spend the afternoon making biscotti (the real name is Cantucci) because I mentioned the night before that I knew how to make it.  This is a more exciting task than usual due to the fact that this family grows almonds and they happen to have some. So for an hour I crack open the little beauties with a hammer and ‘the special rock’  and bake them into biscuits. The house fills with the aromatic scent of almonds and orange. After a lip-smacking dinner of penne with broccoli, fresh ricotta fritters and steamed fresh artichokes with with yoghurt dipping sauce we consume the crumbly cantucci with local moscato and laugh till our sides hurt after Gueseppina tells us that her friend, apon hearing that she was hosting a chef, tried to set me up with her son. Apparently he has 100 cows. Well there you go.

Tomorrow we make fresh ricotta, and, weather permitting, we will light up the woodfired oven and bake pizza for dinnner….

 

Note : Due to the fact that my camera is currently slightly broken there is no pictures for the moment. I will do my best to rectify the situation as soon as is possible.


Christmas In A Strange Land

 

When I first arrived in Italy a year seemed like a gapingly big amount of time. And now, three months  later, it seems like if I blink too fast it might be gone.

Three months! Ye Gods, how did that happen? I have spent the last three weeks staying with a wonderful Turkish girl in Palermo. I was planning on going Wwoofing much earlier than this, but I arranged to go after the New Year, which, when you think about it, makes a lot of sense actually.

 So I spent my first Christmas away from my family.

We were invited by Senem’s boss’s to spend Christmas at their house which was wonderfully lovely of them and it was a simple affair. I made Moussaka and spiced chocolate brulee’s. We ate homemade bread, drank wine and talked. A friend of theirs, a stylish old turkish gentleman who spoke not a word of english arrived towards the end of the meal and we coaxed him into trying the aforementioned spiced chocolate dessert. He ate it with gusto and when he was asked if he liked it he motioned to his face and said, ‘Isnt it obvious?’

Made me feel happy.

 It has struck me as humorous that I came half way around the world and still spent my Christmas without snow. But Christmas to me has, and always will be, about good food and nice company. It does not need to be an extravagant affair, only a enjoyable one.

And I will see snow eventually. Hopefully soon. That’s right folks, I have never seen snow.

 On the penultimate day of the year there was a charity concert being held in a town 2 hours drive away and we spent the week trying to organize a lift. Everyone said maybe and perhaps and we will see how it goes. Friday arrived and everyone decided it was too far or they were busy or they had to stay home and wax their otters… so we said, fine, whatever, and caught a train 3 hours to the city which had the unlikely name of Barcelona PG.  We henceforth reffered to it as ‘Fake Barcelona’. Not long after arriving it began to rain. So we danced in the rain. It rained on and off for the whole concert and we stuck it out like the adventurers of old, freezing and wet and dancing till our teeth were chattering. We finished at 1 am, dripping wet and cold to the bone but smiling. We arrived home at 5 am and fell promptly asleep. New Years was not fantastic (not bad, just not great) but I always seem to have a bad new years (no idea why) so I didnt mind.

Some of my other adventures from the last few weeks include; seeing the last King of Italy’s summer palace… Next to which there was a antique museum which had just opened a week before, curated by this nice looking gentlemen…

Being let inside a gorgeous old spanish Villa to explore and waltz secretly amongst the fading opulence..

Making Pizza in Senems ill equipped kitchen using a new recipe that I had never used before involved cooking the pizza in a frying pan with a no-knead dough. It turned out amazingly… Who woulda thunk it?

Dancing in the kitchen of some Transylvanian friends while drinking sangria after a ferocious game of Settlers of Catan…. And visiting the gorgeous castle-by-the-sea not far from Catania. It was a sad goodbye to these wonderful friends I have made in Sicily and if I have any say in the matter I will see them again. The saddest part of travelling is the continual good bye’s. But the memories and the moments make it all worthwhile…

 


Crispy Golden Potato Wedges with MTD Sauce (Or – Quick! My potatoes are about to sprout!)

– What is the Long and Short of It? –

Crispy, golden potatoes with a dipping sauce so good you will finish any leftovers with a spoon…This is dedicated to all those people out there who think they can’t cook. You can cook this. Trust me.

– For the Wedges –

 

Potatoes, cut into wedges
Oil
Salt
Spices ( I like tumeric, cumin, caramon and paprika)

– For the MTD Sauce –

For every two people you will need

1 Brown onion, diced
1 Large Clove of Garlic, finely minced
400 gm Greek yoghurt (or any unsweet unflavored yoghurt)
Salt
Small Handful of Parsley
1 tblsp of Oil
Pinch of Sugar

Preheat the oven to 200.

Cut as many potatoes as you think your guests will eat (this depends largely on if it will be the main course or a side dish) and space evenly on a baking tray (or two)

Drizzle well with olive oil. You want enough to evenly coat. Give it a good salting and wack in your spices. Even just tumeric is lovely, if you dont have all the spices.

Get in there with your hands and massage the oil and and spices and salt all over your lucky wedges.

Bung tray in the oven and leave for about 20 minutes until crispy and the kitchen smells wonderful.

Meanwhile.

Fry onion in about oil until golden and caramelized over a medium to high heat. Add a little salt and a pinch or two of sugar and cook a mo, You want some serious goldenness going on here. Stir through 1 tbls of water. Turn off.

Mix finely chopped garlic into and parsely into onion. Cool 5 minutes. Stir through yoghurt and season to taste.

Serve with a generous portion of MTD sauce and devour!

– The Long of It –

I have been making wedges for as long as I can remember. They are one of the first things I learnt how to cook and their variations are countless.

My mum makes amazing ones with good quality mayonnaise, fresh chopped rosemary and grain mustard and they are soft and luscious.

It still amazes me the incredibly vast guises the humble potato can take. From mash to duaphinoise to chips to curry to pringles, to jacket, to soup to vodka…

Can you imagine the first people to discover potatoes? To take this wierdly lumpy thing from the ground and then think that it was edible. How wildly delicous it would be… How it would cause a famine in Ireland…

Did you know that potatoes were the first food to be grown in space? Hot damn! That is awesome! They are eco friendly. They are healthy. They are the 4th most consumed food on the planet… Marie Antoinette never actually said ‘Let them eat Cake!’  But she did wear potato blossoms as accesories….

But this all pales in comparison to the fact that pototoes are just damn delicious. Plunk one in the coals of a dying fire. Roast. Salt and drench with butter and tell me otherwise…

 

A note on the title: I haven’t made wedges in a while. Last night me and my lovely host were deciding what to cook and we were like, how about potatoes?
But lo and behold the potatoes were getting little sprouty bits and we were like, quick, quick, what shall we do?
And it came to me like a bolt from the blue and we made wedges. From all of the potatoes. And it was glorious.


Wonderfully Moist Chocolate and (gasp) Zuchinni Cake

– What is the Long and Short Of It? –

Everything is good with chocolate right? Coffee, orange, caramel, almonds, zuchinni… what, what?!

Time to take out your adventurous gloves and fall in love with this fantastically moist cake, fragrant with orange and rich with chocolate. Slightly chewy on the outside and iced to perfection… It’s like carrot cake. That had a love child with a chocolate cake.

– The Short of it –

185 gm butter
1 cup of brown sugar
2 eggs
1 1/2 cups Self Raising Flour
1 1/2 cups of grated zuchinni, skin and all
2 tsp Finely Grated Orange Rind
1/4 cup of good quality cocoa
3/4 cup of Milk

Beat butter and sugar till smooth.
Add one egg. Beat till smooth. Repeat with second egg.
Fold in other ingredients, sifting flour and cocoa if they are lumpy.
Grease and flour a cake tin. Pour in batter.
Bake at 200 for around 50 minutes to an hour. Its ready when the top springs back when pressed lightly with your finger.
The skewer trick wont be right here – the cake is meant to be moist.
Cool on a wire rack.
Prepare yourself…

Ice with Rich Chocolate Icing.

(125 gm of melted dark chocolate mixed with 1/4 cup of sour cream and 1/2 cup of icing sugar and chilled until softly set)

Ice.

Prepare to have your mind blown….

– The Long Of It –

I have been hearing about this cake for years in cookbooks and magazines and on blogs and though it sat high on my list of  ‘to bake’ things, it just never eventuated.
It fascinated me. To use zuchinni with chocolate must be either mad or genius (the two often being confused) and for it to feature everywhere I was guessing the latter.
I was right.
Just before leaving the country I went to spend two weeks with my family in Crystal Waters and my Mum said, ‘Let’s make that chocolate zuchinni cake.”
That’s how long I have been meaning to make this damn cake for. Since before I moved out of home. Madness.
So we did. And it was glorious.
We made two and ate it for morning tea. And then afternoon tea. And then for breakfast.
Also to all the guests that came over.

Note : This Icing is wonderful for any chocolate cake you might make.
Rich and less sickly sweet than your average icing (which I don’t really like)

Please let me know how your adventure goes… Don’t make the mistake I did and wait to have this with your morning (or afternoon) cup of tea!