Monday, 27 June 2011

La Mia Crostata di Pesche... fiori rosa... (Dangerously delicious Italian Peach Lattice Pie)

It looks like those beautiful squashed up, sweet, exotic looking peaches (or donut peaches) "pesche tabacchiera" or "saturnine" are everywhere this Summer! As I just cannot resist anything that is slightly different from the ordinary, I bought a few of those peaches: the fragrance of the fruit is unbelievable and it matches the scent of the peach blossom which used to often adorn our living room, in Italy. I love blossom, in Spring and I still remember, in Summer, walking past a greengrocer's near our house, in the city and smelling the honey sweetness of the peaches.
Blossom, in Italy
The pulp of these peaches, added to Prosecco are the main ingredient of a cocktail called Bellini, which was invented at Harry's Bar, in Venice ( I will get my husband to make me a Bellini-he knows how!)
Il Sig. Franco "Armani", my brother-in-law, is casually shopping at a
local greengrocer's, in Modugno, Italy

Anyway! The fruits I bought were so beautiful, you just wanted to eat them. I also bought some ordinary round peaches, but they didn't have the sunny, exotic look of my little squashed peaches, so similar to the "white peaches" so beautiful and sweet, you get in Bari.
My squashed Pesche Tabacchiera
Anyway... I drove my peaches home and all the time I kept smelling the fragrance: almost as good as a perfume! The heat and the sun kind of "amplified" if you can use this term, the aroma. "To dream or not to dream?" Wake up and drive, Anna!
When I got home, I decided I would make  a crostata using my peaches. Wow! It was a good idea! Thinking about it, I should have made Bellini. My crostata was sweet, delicate and a bit naughty. Delicious with yogurt!
Crostata di Pesche
Italian Tabacchiera Peach Pie
Makes 6 -7 portions
For the peach filling:
6 squashed peaches
(ordinary peaches OK!)
3tbs  sugar
100 ml water
For the pastry:
400 g ( 14 oz) plain- all purpose  flour
150 g (5 oz) sugar
150g (5 oz)  g butter
2 egg yolks
A couple of hours before I start making my crostata, I took the butter out of the fridge as it needed to soften. Two hours later... in a large mixing bowl, I put my flour, followed by the butter, cut into small pieces. I mixed till my mixture resembled fine breadcrumbs.
At this point I added  the egg yolks, mixed a little bit and, finally, I added a small teaspoon of baking powder to make my pastry slightly spongy.  If the mixture is too stiff, add a small amount of cold water. If it's a bit "wet" add flour. You should get a firm "dough" which needs to be wrapped and refrigerated for half an hour.
While my pastry was resting, I prepared my peaches, by cutting them in half horizontally, then I twisted each of them, to get rid of the stone in the middle. I then placed some sugar (I used natural cane sugar) in a large pan, with the water and the peach halves. I cooked this until all the liquid evaporated and I was left with peaches in pink caramel... very nice! The skin peeled off, so I just had the sweet, juicy flesh for my crostata filling. Easy!

When the pastry came out of the fridge, I rolled most of it to fit my  buttered and floured pie dish (25 cm diameter) I brushed some apricot jam over the  base and then arranged my peaches in a round pattern, to fill my crostata base. 
I decided that my crostata should look rustic and traditional, so I cut some thin pastry strips and made a lattice pattern over the peaches. I dusted with cane sugar and baked in a hot oven (200 C-400 F-Gas 6) for a good 30-40 minutes. My house soon began to smell like one of JLO's Summer fragrances: sweet, peachy, velvety... I knew it would be a good one!

My crostata was ready when the pastry looked golden and scrumptious. I also checked the "bottom"... no burnt bits! The base of my crostata was cooked and I knew I would have to freeze most of it just to make sure I didn't eat too much of it!
I served my crostata with plain fat free yogurt,
peaches and wonderful strawberries
picked from my garden!
I could eat the pictures!

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Baked Sea Bass with Olives and Nostalgia ( Branzino- Orata in Tortiera)

Every morning she opened the window to look at the sea...

The blue sea

  And every morning... the boats sailed over the "blue" as the sun burnt the Earth like it was  midday.

Watching the boats
 From far away, the smell of chamomile, made stronger by the sweet Summer breeze, reminded her of a Sunday morning, by the sea, when she gathered shells and dried  seaweed and the ancient olive trees danced, over the other side of a busy road, as if they were running towards the water... It must have been early June, as the chamomile was ready to be picked: it had a rich, sunny scent... From the tiny flowers, the fragrance of a hot Summer's day, and a memory from the past... or maybe the future. Can you have memories from the future? What is time, anyway?


I so crave the sea and the colours of "HOME" in the Summer season. I remember all the adventures I had, with my father, catching crabs and shrimps, buying ice cream, swimming in the sea and finally, going back home.

Sea urchins and shell fish we caught in the Adriatic

I was looking at pictures taken one and two years ago, in Italy... the sea is so beautiful and so blue... How can that sea be so beautiful, so blue, so immense...  bigger than the Ocean? Does my love make the sea appear deep and full of promise? How could the Greek Traveller fail to obey the song of the Mermaids? That is exactly what I hear... it's that song which allows me to "travel" so I can go back to life, as it used to be...

Well... I was obviously feeling very nostalgic, today, and a bit homesick. I miss  my sea, in Summer. So... I had to cook a VERY Southern  Italian dish, which would fill the house with "happy" aromas. May not seem poetic to you, but to me, it does... it reminds me Summer and of of home!
Here it is what I cooked ( not very poetic, but very good, indeed!)

Branzino in Tortiera
Baked Sea Bass with olives

Sea bass and sea bream

Serves 2
2 medium sized sea bass
a handful of olives
2 cloves garlic, chopped
some parsley
4-5 tomatoes halved or quartered
some olive oil
black pepper
a generous sprinkling of Pecorino cheese
some dried origano
Optional: a few fresh mussels
for added flavour

I washed my fresh sea bass, cleaned it by discarding its fins and tail, then placed it in an ovenproof dish. Next,  I added my chopped garlic, parsley, and arranged my tomatoes ( I used tiny plum tomatoes) and olives round the fish.

Ready for the oven

I added some water ( a couple of glasses- do not cover the fish!)) a generous glug of olive oil ( I also went over the fish with the oil!) followed by some grated cheese, salt, black pepper and some origano. I also added a few mussels to my dish, for added flavour. It worked! This dish is called  "Pesce in Tortiera" a "tortiera being the name of the pan in which the fish is cooked.
I made a foil "lid" for my tortiera, which was then placed into a hot oven (200 C- Gas 6-400F) for as long as it took, really. I kept checking my fish and I knew it was cooked when it looked golden, a lot of the water had reduced, producing a fantastic sauce and the steam which came out of the oven made me think:"Hmmmm...." Translated, that means about 30 to 40 minutes!

My beautiful sea bass is ready!

Some Like it Cold ( Italian Tuna and potato Salad- Insalata di Tonno e Patate)

Dried mountain origano, wild escarole and quail eggs

This dish was sometimes our "cena" (evening meal) in Summer, when it was too warm to eat hot food!
We would just have it with delicious "pane di Altamura" a bread so good it's exported all over the world! My mamma used to select a loaf which was "ben cotto"... well done... which usually, in her case meant "burnt." Pane di Altamura is traditionally cooked in ancient stone ovens, not because we don't have modern bakeries, in Italy, but because we tend to preserve and look after things which are part of our history and culinary tradition: bread and pizza cooked in old stone ovens are the best.

A slice of "well done..." Altamura bread

Anyway! Yes, especially on a Summer evening, we would have one of the many salads my mum used to make. The one I made actually incorporates many of the flavours and the aromas of the Mediterranean and, I believe, every Southern European country has its own version. To me, this is just a salad my mum used to make. When I make it I can see her, in our kitchen, full of life and smiles... it's good that I have so many memories of life with her, just the two of us, together... all the time.

Here is the recipe:
Insalata di Patate con Tonno
(Potato and tuna salad)
Four servings
6 medium sized potatoes
1 onion
1 large can tuna or salmon
a couple of Spring onions
a generous spoonful capers in vinegar
1 large beef tomato
5-6 small salad  tomatoes
Olive oil (as much or as little as you like)
black pepper
3boiled eggs, sliced
some cold water
a light sprinkling of dried origano

This is really SO EASY! Prepare all your ingredients. Boil your potatoes (skin on) making sure they are soft, but firm, then peel and cut into largish cubes. Slice your onion and your Spring onions. Open your can of tuna, so it's ready. Your beef tomato (or tomatoes) will need to be diced or sliced and make sure to have a nice tablespoon full of capers, as they really make this salad!
I was given some very happy quail eggs, so I used them, boiled, in my salad. Because they are so tiny, I also used a couple of free range eggs, kindly donated by some chickens who share "quarters" with the quails!


All you need to do is place all the ingredients in a large bowl, mix them together ( very gently) and, at the end, add a generous glug of olive oil, or two, or as many as you like, within reason, of course! Add your origano ( mine was picked up in the Cilento mountains, Italy, and dried by me) a small glass of cold water, as this salad is not meant to be dry as such, as you have it with bread (yum, yum, yum!)

My special origano, from Italy

As you can see from the pictures, I added something green, as I had this wild dandelion and wild escarole growing in my garden. I had most of it boiled and I then added a very small amount of olive oil, but I also added some of the leaves to my salad.

My beautiful salad!

I finished the salad off by adding my sliced, boiled eggs. This is a truly magnificent example that healthy doesn't have to boring. I think my salad is as beautiful as Marylin Monroe. Don't you?

Wild escarole and dandelion

We had this salad with fish cakes ( "croquettes di pesce") I made using mashed potatoes, sliced spring onions, 1 egg yolk, 1 fresh salmon steak, poached and flaked, some grated pecorino cheese and some fresh Italian parsley. I shaped my croquettes, dipped them in my delicious bread crumbs and fried (but you can bake them in a hot oven)

"Al Bacio!"  Just beautiful! In the window of Caffe` Roma, Modugno, Italy

Croquettes di pesce e insalata di tonno e patate!
Che buono!

Monday, 20 June 2011

Pasticcini di Mandorle ( Almond Cakes and an April afternoon)

I went out, this afternoon. The sky was gray, above the little town perched on a mountain top. I crossed my arms tightly, as I was feelings the cold wind, but I didn't want to go home. I love coming out when the long sloping road which leads down, into the town is empty. I like that feeling of "owning" the beautiful landscape, the mountains,the green slopes, every rock, the wild plants, the birds which sit on the telephone cables, waiting for something. Don't we all?

 The slope

Through a gap on my left, I can see the town, down below. The faint sound of an engine tells me that the world must be waking up, after the afternoon rest. I must "grab" the last few minutes of peace, before the children wake up and start playing outside, on the steep slope which leads down, villas on each side, prickly pears above growing as if by miracle, out of an old stone wall, the first leaves beginning to shoot on the grapevines and the elegantly clumsy artichokes waving as I walk past. It's April... and it's still cold up here.

 The town, below...
Prickly pear cacti

I follow that cat, the beautiful fat one, some of the way down the mountain side... it leads me to a garden, not too far from the side of the road, just there, where a big clump of rosemary and the wild sage grow. A house, on my right, a pile of olive wood. The cat sits on a stone table, I look up and I see it: a tree laden with almonds. I must touch the velvety gems: a layer of sage green flesh covered in "fur" hides the wonderful secret: an almond. And, once again, I remember picking almonds with my cousin, sat on a stone wall, by a villa, when I discovered the "secret" place where pearly white fresh, juicy almonds were hidden!

The almond tree

Almonds, wild rosemary and sage

We cracked each one and ate so many, I lost count. Almonds featured quite a lot in our lives: they came on the table at the end of every Sunday dinner, they were inside confetti (sugared almonds) at weddings and when babies were born. Almonds was what my mother used, to make her delicious "Croccante" and "Pasticcini di Mandorle" usually burnt at the bottom (she blamed the oven, but... you know what? We came to love the "burnt" bits!)
When my mother made her "pasticcini" she would toast fresh almonds, then blend them until they were almost pulverized and then used them. I bought some almonds today and I decided to make my mum's pasticcini. Will I manage to burn the bottom? I know for a fact, mine won't taste as good as hers. That is for sure!

Pasticcini di mandorle
(makes twenty "balls")


200g ( 7 oz) ground almonds
200 g ( 7 oz) sugar
2 egg whites
zest of one lemon
candied fruit or nuts to decorate
one tbs limoncello, optional

Quick and easy: in a bowl, mix the ground almonds and the sugar until blended. Add the lemon zest, then gradually incorporate the egg whites, then add your limoncello, if using.

 Your mixture should be firm, so the cakes hold their shape when baked. Roll the mixture little balls, the size of  an apricot. My mother used to roll each "ball" into sugar and place each cake into a paper cases and then onto a tray. I did the same, of course

Ready for the oven!

If you wish, you can use an icing bag and a large nozzle and bake your cakes directly onto a baking tray, previously greased and floured. If you like, you can top each cake with a candied cherry, or a pistachio nut. Bake (200 C-Gas6-400 F) until they begin to look golden, then leave to stand until cold ( ideally, for a couple of hours, but I could never wait that long!)

I had mine with coffee
Limoncello would have been better, though!

There were twenty and then... THERE WERE NINETEEN! DELICIOUS!

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Agnello Pasquale con Piselli (Traditional Lamb with Peas)

 Amongst the strawberries and the curly cale, grow my peas...

I was watching a show on TV, a couple of weeks ago. A chef, who I really like, was in Puglia, in a beautiful old farmhouse, and he announced he was going to make "Agnello con piselli" "Lamb with Peas." I got quite excited, as this is a favourite Easter Monday dish, in Puglia, made with lamb, peas,onions and eggs. It's really delicious and "Green". In fact, the local name for this dish is "Verdetto" ("verde" meaning green, in Italian.)

I was very disappointed when the chef, a really sweet Italian man, who lives and works in England, rather than produce the original dish, from my region, made a dish which consisted of: meat, carrots, potatoes, onions, peppers, some peas, lemon, vinegar, white wine... and the list continues: thyme, rosemary and  tomatoes! Oh, yes! And five anchovy fillets!

So, I decided to cook and post the real, original recipe for Lamb with Peas, Il Verdetto di Pasqua (Easter Green Lamb and Peas.) This dish is eaten on Easter Monday (Lunedi` dell'Angelo) and it is made using ingredients available in Spring: lamb, peas (possibly fresh) and eggs. Nice and simple and very traditional. Like any great Italian dishes, just a few ingredients combined to produce intense Mediterranean flavour.

Agnello con piselli

(Lamb with peas)
Serves 4
8 Lamb chops
5 generous glugs oil
1large onion, chopped or sliced
1 glass white wine
450 g ( about 1 lb) fresh or frozen peas
2 eggs, beaten
black pepper
chopped parsley.

I used lamb chops for this dish (use any cut as long as the meat can be cooked quickly.) I sliced my onion quite roughly. I then put some olive oil in a large frying pan (a saucepan is fine, too.) When the oil became really hot, I put in my onion, stirred and browned. At this point I added the lamb and, again, I let it brown on a high heat.

When the lamb started to look really golden, I added a small glass of white wine and let the whole thing simmer and reduce. If it looked dry, I would add half a glass of water and, eventually, some salt and lots of black pepper, because I love it!
When you knew my meat was almost done, I added all the peas, stirred and added some water ( just half a glass or so.) I covered the pan and let my dish simmer, until all the ingredients were cooked.

almost done!

In a small bowl, I whisked two eggs, added some parsley, then lifted the lid off my pan and poured the beaten egg over the lamb and peas.

eggs with parsley and some salt

I mixed everything together, seasoned again and then I just couldn't help but take a deep breath in, to inhale the fantastic combination of flavours and aromas. The black pepper and the parsley predominant, always a super "Duo!" What a delicious dish! Certainly a tradition to preserve and hand down!

Agnello con Piselli