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One Italian family's (+ 1 Kiwi) take on the Italian food culture and how truly easy it is to make the real (Italian) McCoy! Plus some very cool musings from an "outsider's" point of view...

We're in London now, so you might discover some insider tips on where to find good Italian food here, as well as around the world.

Summer = Strawberries... Prosecco... Good Times!!!

It’s not just the warm weather, the (ample) beach time, or a good tan that makes me yearn for Summer. It’s also the myriad of seasonal fruits that I can munch on whenever possible in those warmer months! Strawberries would probably be one of the most common Summer fruits available. If you think about it, even if they were an occasional treat, fresh Summer strawberries were somehow present in your childhood, even before we started shipping out-of-season fruit & veggies all around the world at any time of the year. 

PROSECCO is a sparkling white wine, originally from the region of Veneto (capital city: Venice). As indicated in some of our recipes you can often substitute prosecco with normal dry sparkling white wine, or even dry white table wine in some dishes, but in this case, it’s prosecco all the way! 

Here’s a bit of useless information: The original champagne came from Veneto and was, in fact, prosecco. Word has it that the French took the effervescent method back to a small town called Champagne(!), and they still get a decent percentage of their grapes from Italy today.

500gr strawberries
100ml prosecco
(pg 8 of That Really Cool Italian Cookbook)
4 dessert spoons honey (preferably liquid/runny honey) juice of 1 lemon

his fantastic dessert is a fresh way of cleaning the palate and savouring the best that Summer has to offer! Enjoy!

If it's Wintery where you are, or even if your just welcoming Spring, a good (healthy) nosh-up is always a welcome thing!

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In a large, deep saucepan, boil the water. 􏰎add the salt – the water will bubble and fizz􏰐􏰐 for a moment before calming down a little. B􏰍efore your water begins to boil once more, whisk at the ready, slowly pour in cornmeal, always stirring in the same direction. At this point the whisk will ensure an absence of lumps. Once you’ve added all of the cornmeal, turn the heat down to a low-moderate temperature. As soon as the cornmeal is absorbed and your mixture starts to thicken, substitute your whisk with a strong/thick wooden spoon. Cook your polenta for at least 40 minutes, stirring frequently, almost scooping the polenta from bottom to top with large, circular movements. D􏰩on’t leave your polenta to stand for longer than 5􏰇 minutes between stirrings. The polenta is ready when it’s firm and begins to pull away from the edges of the saucepan. I􏰑f it becomes too firm add a small splash of low-􏰏fat milk, stirring until the milk is absorbed into the polenta. Remove from heat. 􏰀place a wooden board􏰅/tray over your saucepan and flip the saucepan over to allow the polenta to fall onto the board (you may have to bash the bottom of your pot to 􏰙coa􏰌x it out). 􏰪your polenta should fall out and stand firmly on the board leaving a thin layer of corn meal around the saucepan. Soak your saucepan in water as soon as possible – it’ll make it SO much easier to clean!

Polenta is a dish typically, and originally, from the north of Italy. The recipe in “That Really Cool Italian Cookbook” is Polenta Bergamasca – from Bergamo – which is a firm, yellow polenta. Polenta is a paste,
or dough, made from yellow or white (or a mixture of both if desired) cornmeal, boiled in lightly salted water to create a very thick, porridge-like consistency.
These days you can find polenta throughout Italy, with each town boasting theirs is the only way to go! Polenta Bergamasca is famous for its firmer, coarser texture, as opposed to the more common softer, white polenta served elsewhere. In fact, many local traditions use the white, softer version as a substitute for purée or mashed potatoes. Polenta has become more and more popular in recent years and is often a hit with those of us who are trying to keep our meat intake to a minimum While it contains many nutrients, it’s not a good substitute for meat and proteins; it’s just a fantastic filler in any meal.
Traditionally, polenta can take an hour or longer to prepare and it has to be stirred frequently whilst cooking. You can find quick-cook, microwaveable polenta available, which is ready in just a few minutes, though general consensus is that the taste is far inferior to that of the slow-cooked version. Polenta is best served fresh from the pot and piping hot! Though it’s not overly tasty, it lends itself perfectly as an excuse to mop up (and savour) the juices of any accompanying meat, sauce, gravy or better yet, folded around a healthy slice of soft, tasty cheese – that’s ‘comfort food’ for Italians. Though a thoroughly welcome visitor in winter, polenta is a hearty accessory to any occasion, is usually accompanied by meat,
fish or mushrooms, and it really fills the spot.
Leftovers? Throw your polenta in the fridge overnight where it will harden slightly, and if it wasn’t already it will become cut-able. The next morning toss a couple of slices in the pan and throw over a fried egg. Hmmm... too good!

It's Asparagus Season! Why not try something new?

Prawn & Asparagus Risotto
  1. 500gr green asparagus 
  2. 1 onion (finely diced) 
  3. 1 􏰏 lt vegetable stock 
  4. 200ml white wine 
  5. 4 dessert spoons e􏰀xtra virgin olive oil 
  6. 125g prawns (shelled)
  7. 400g middle􏰂grain rice (arborio) 
  8. 100ml low􏰂fat milk 
  9. 2 pinches nutmeg pepper (to taste) 
  10. 2 dessert spoons parmesan (freshly grated) 

Remove and discard the bases of the asparagus. 􏰅In a small saucepan bring asparagus to the boil and then remove from the water, they should be cooked but still firm. Cut another 2􏰌cm off the base of each asparagus and blend. 􏰇Add onion and mix􏰀 well. Cut remaining stems of asparagus (leaving the tips for later) into thin slices and set aside. 􏰅In a large saucepan simmer your asparagus slices and your onion mix􏰀ture with 􏰑􏰕􏰕100ml vegetable stock, 􏰑􏰕􏰕100ml wine 􏰒 & 2􏰌 dessert spoons of oil over a moderate heat for 􏰊5 minutes.
􏰖Finely chop around half of your prawns, add them to the saucepan and continue to simmer for 􏰑1 minute. 􏰇Add rice and remainder of the wine stirring continuously until the wine is absorbed. Then 􏰁quickly add 􏰑1 glass (200􏰌􏰕􏰕ml) of stock to stop the rice from sticking to the bottom of the pan. 􏰇As soon as the vegetable stock has been absorbed into the rice, add your sliced asparagus and milk. M􏰐xi􏰀 well. Continue to add your stock one glass at a time (allowing each glass to be absorbed before adding the nex􏰀t) until rice is moist and firm but soft to the core. The entire process of adding your stock should take around 20 minutes. Stir freq􏰁uently to ensure your risotto doesn’t become too dry or stick to the bottom of the saucepan. 􏰇Add remaining prawns, asparagus tips, nutmeg and pepper and cook for a further 2 minutes. 􏰇Add remainder of oil, mi􏰀x well and remove from heat. Stand for 2 minutes before serving hot with a sprinkling of parmesan. 

Risotto is a traditionally from the north of Italy, but a real favourite amongst Italians as a whole. The ingredients are well chosen and each is given enough space to perform admirably. These days, you will find a myriad of different versions. In That Really Cool Italian Cookbook you’ll find risottos that encompass the typical traits of a good risotto – hearty, yet at the same time, sophisticated. Most of the accompanying ingredients will be evenly absorbed into the rice, allowing the perfect moistness that, amongst other traits, determines an Italian ‘risotto’ from any other rice dish. To make a good risotto you definitely want to put your heart into it – you’ll be stirring for a while, so you may as well have fun doing it, right? When making a genuine Italian risotto, use the correct type of rice: ‘Arborio’. Arborio is middle-grain rice, it’s rounder and more absorbent than the typical basmati or long-grain rice. 

Finely chop your onion, the finer the better – some use a half-moon type knife (mezzaluna) with handles at both ends, usually used for herbs & garlic etc., rocking the blade continuously over the pulp. If rocked long enough your onion will become a fine paste, allowing more flavour to absorb into the rice. The process of adding more vegetable stock once the previous ladle, or glassful, has been absorbed, again, ensures a perfectly even spread of flavour. And it adheres to the typical behaviour of the more absorbent Arborio rice. As this is basically the core process of creating an authentic risotto, you’ll want to make sure your rice doesn’t stick to the bottom of your saucepan, so keep stirring as frequently as possible.
Most risottos begin with a light sauté of onion in vegetable stock and/or wine, before adding the rice. From that point you should calculate another 20 minutes or so to completion of the dish. Risotto really holds its heat, so you might want to let it stand for a few minutes before serving. Many Italians will spread their risotto evenly over their entire plate, eating from the outside-in. 

thursday is the perfect day for gnocchi!

Hi guys, this is your Visionary Cook blogging for you today!

Today is thursday, I just saw a picture of home made gnocchi, my mouth started to water and therefore I decide to write about those funny dumplings called gnocchi!

 

Gnocchi are basically mashed potatoes & flour rolled into little balls resembling dumplings. Being small, there are lots of them, and so lots of surface area to soak up their sauce. They are one of Italy’s (and mine) favourite dishes! They’re good. They’re filling. And they go with just about any kind of sauce. In Roman times, they were made with a semolina porridge-like dough – thank goodness someone had the brains to bring the potato into Europe in the 16th century!

 

In our book we’ve inserted 2 recipes for 2 different types of gnocchi: potato gnocchi & pumpkin gnocchi. Pumpkin gnocchi are something else!!! Don’t be discouraged by what seems to be a difficult preparation. It’s not complicated at all, and it gets easier every time (remember how good it used to feel playing with Play-Doh). Initially you have to learn to judge the right consistency of the mixture. Even if we’ve written the right quantities of ingredients, it also depends on your personal taste. You may prefer a soft gnocchi (less flour) or a firmer gnocchi (more flour). If you’re not sure of the consistency of the dough, cook one gnocco and taste it. If it is too soft or falls apart add more flour to the dough. Cook the gnocchi in a large saucepan, with 10g of salt per litre of water (as is the same for pasta). The water must be boiling before adding the gnocchi. Cook a couple of handfuls of gnocchi at a time. If you add too many gnocchi to the water at one time, the water will cool down, which means the gnocchi will be submerged for too long and may fall apart. In about 3-4 minutes they’ll float to the surface; scoop them out with a large sieve or pierced ladle. And it’s always best to place them into a pre-warmed dish. Continue this process as fast as you can, adding spoonfuls of  your chosen sauce from time to time to the already cooked gnocchi, stirring gently before serving. My favourite gnocchi dish: Pumpkin gnocchi, with sage & butter sauce, with a healthy dose of parmesan thrown over before devouring! Too good for words!



Our Beginnings... - and good coffee!

We’ve been working on That Really Cool Italian Cookbook since 2001. We printed off the very first version of the book, not realising how truly important a good proof-read is… We had a few little designs, but the general layout looked like something from the ’70’s. Even the Introduction page was apologetic. And it was called “Mamma Alda’s Cook Book”. Truly exhilarating stuff!  Let’s just say that even though we had big dreams, it was still pretty much a spare-time thing.But we really did believe in the book regardless! The recipes are good! Some easy, some requiring more thought & effort, but all easy to follow. So, we took our book around the New Zealand publishing circuit where we were greeted very well. A couple of publishing houses said the only reason they wouldn’t take us on was because we didn’t live in NZ and wouldn’t be available for any promotional activities etc. One referred us to their UK counter-parts, but again, we were based in Italy at the time and not the UK.

Meanwhile, 3 of us (Livio, Ire & Joe) had all moved into La Villa Scatola, in Le Marche, Italy. It was blissfully peaceful out there, with the closest neighbours literally 2 rolling hills away. Heaven! With more time on our hands, and still coming to terms with the fact that our wee book wasn’t moving mole hills, let alone mountains, we decided it needed an overhaul. We’d already put countless hours into it, and it deserved to be taken seriously. Little did we know what that simple decision would mean for us….                                                                                                                             

It required hours & hours & hours of: refining the recipes, drawing & painting, researching facts & writing numerous articles, photographing (inevitably cold) food, loads of arguments about which recipes should/shouldn’t be in the final version of the book, playing with the layout, and then playing some more until we couldn’t see what we thought was right anymore…  We were really lucky because all three of us were able to dedicate all of that time & effort to this baby of ours - literally 1000’s of hours…!

One day, a very good friend of ours, who happens to be a lecturer at one of the local universities, suggested we go along with her to the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, the 2nd largest book fair in Europe. Clearly our book was not meant to be there, but it would give us a good idea about how publishing in general works. At least at a ground floor level.                                                          So… we decided we should go there as our characters from the book…! Apart from being the ONLY  people there in any kind of costume, it created the impact we were hoping to make! From that one event alone, not only did we get to meet and talk with industry experts, but we were invited to Sharjah UAE, to the International Children’s Book Fair! All expenses paid, to showcase our wares and well, basically to see if they really do like Italian cuisine as much as we’d heard. What a fantastic week we had there!!! Such friendly, welcoming people! Very generous in every way!

Many hungry mouths in Sharjah, UAE

Many hungry mouths in Sharjah, UAE

That fuelled our hope to finish this project, and to well & truly dive into a whole new world of culinary delights, techniques, indulgences and new adventures! (have a look at the videos on our media page)

 

SO… Here we are in London! What a city!! If anyone ever tells you, “I know London like the back of my hand”, they’re either lying/exaggerating or they just plain don’t know London at all. London resembles more a nation than a city. It’s massive! And it’s jam-packed…! Not even running at full speed, backpack packed with water & reserves, could you visit every café in town, for example. And there’s always a new one opening somewhere.

There are the usual chains, like Costa, or Starbucks (which aren’t too bad if you’re on the run between appointments), and then there is the myriad of boutique coffee houses that offer a great atmosphere, often with original, well-executed decor, complete with plush sofas, nifty cups & mugs, the coolest magazines and, more often than not, homemade cakes & delectables. But there is a common vein running through (almost) all of these: great coffee!

Coffee is, believe it, or not, actually quite poisonous. We’re not meant to drink it, really. But hey, there are worse vices to be indulged. And quite frankly, numerous generations of coffee guzzling Italians would prove otherwise. Sometimes there’s just nothing more satisfying than a good, rich cup of coffee.

These days there’s an ever-growing list of different types of coffees available, and London is home to the newest addition to the coffee menu: the Flat White! Basically a Latte with a double shot of espresso. That being the only item on the menu you’re likely to query, let’s move on to a great example of a ‘typical’ London coffee house, Hunter Gather. Typical in the sense that they just don’t offer great coffee, they’re dripping with individualism and great ideas. In this case, their Shoreditch ‘café’ fronts the image below: high-end fashion. So you can do a spot of shopping after a good boost of caffeine. Both the coffee and the clothes are of the highest quality. And this is just one example of how Londoners satisfy their urges conveniently.

 - If I was going to give one gripe, though,  it would be that the cups are reasonably small. That said,  the coffee’s awesome and the staff are really friendly and welcoming. You really do feel like you’ve just walked into someone’s home.

But that’s if you’re lucky enough to get atmosphere with your hard earned caffeine break. If you want a decent coffee at home, get yourself a mocca. It’s the easiest, low-cost way of getting the real McCoy. Every household in Italy has at least 2 mocca machines: a smaller one for 2 people (shots), and a larger one for serving more people after meals. It makes great espresso coffee, so if you’re after a longer version, add boiling water to make a long “American” coffee. Tastes much better than any instant coffee and the aromas warmly permeate through your house. 

 

Image by aliexpress.com

Image by aliexpress.com

So you’ll need good coffee grains. If you’re not used to rich coffee at home, go for something warm & full bodied. If I’m not sure of the brand/flavour/quality, I tend toward the mid-price range, and I take the time to read the packet. It should give a brief description of the flavour, plus it should also say where the coffee is from. Italian coffee is supreme, and Arabic is great, too. I did hear once that Spanish coffee is a mix of both European coffee and Arabic - one of my favourites, actually.

There are loads of tips on how to keep your coffee grains fresh & full-flavoured, but really, all you need a sealable jar. Simple. 

Keep an eye on your mocca, and remove it from the heat as soon as the coffee has completely risen to the top compartment, otherwise it’ll burn.

BIG NOTE: Never wash your mocca in soapy water. Just rinse it well under running water. Otherwise the rubber seals will take on some of that delicious soapy taste and taint your next coffee. Don’t worry, the mocca will eventually look kind of gross, but the coffee it’ll produce will be great!

Coffee grinders (found in That Really Cool Italian Cookbook))

Coffee grinders (found in That Really Cool Italian Cookbook))