Sunday, 23 July 2017

Cucina Conversations: Calamari Ripieni al Sugo (Stuffed Squid)

Long summer days on end holidaying at the beach is not something I can say we grew up doing except on occasional weekends, however my husband and his extended family did.  Every Christmas and Easter holidays were spent at the seaside at Cowes, Phillip Island since a very young age.  San Remo is the last southern coast mainland town before the bridge takes holiday makers to the island. The islands towns, Newhaven and Ryll hold much fishing history and are also lovely to visit during the colder months. So knowing that July’s Cucina Conversations topic was going to be seafood, I timed our short getaway last month to East Gippsland with a day trip to Phillip Island to the fishing village of Newhaven. I looked forward to buying some fresh calamari and cooking this dish (which I hadn't made for years) in the quaint fully equipped kitchen at Marges Cottage.

On our early morning drive up, I heard many stories of my father in law spending hours out near the pier using a bucket he had cut the bottom out of and replaced with glass so he could look through to spot and retrieve abalone. In Italian they are known as orecchie di mare, and buckets were filled (which is totally prohibited now) to then be brought back for the family to prepare and enjoy as thin crumbed cutlets pan fried.  Crumbed and fried sardines were another specialty enjoyed by this Sicilian family.  We on the other hand ate fish only on Fridays and mamma would cook the type papa` generally preferred to eat such as garfish lightly floured and fried or salted cod two ways - baccala` con peperoni cruschi (fried with crispy peppers) or baccala con le patate e olive (with tomatoes, potatoes & olives).  Occasionally she would make stuffed calamari as a treat which I absolutely love. This dish of calamari ripieni is cooked in a simple tomato sauce and only requires a few staple ingredients.  In search of calamari and missing the early morning rush to the fish monger at Bass Strait Direct, I had to content myself with squid instead. This soon became my lesson on the difference between arrow squid and southern calamari.  There is definitely a difference in price, with calamari being far more expensive but assured that there wasn’t much difference in flavour or texture of the fish as the squid on offer was small in size.

You can identify squid from calamari by the fins that form an arrow shape on the end of the squid's hood. The fins of calamari extend almost all the way down the hood. The fishmonger informed me that the squid is just as tasty and tender if cooked correctly and calamari are just overrated and therefore more pricey.  It was suggested I prepare the squid by chopping up their fins and tentacles and stuffing these back into the hood with fresh breadcrumbs and slowly cooked in a tomato and garlic sauce and the slow cooking tenderises the squid's flesh.  Exactly what I wanted to hear as this is how I’ve known them to be cooked by mamma and the way I’ve enjoyed them most.  For this dish, do avoid buying the calamari tubes, which are large and inferior in quality and aim to buy fresh squid or whole calamari which your fish monger can clean for you if you are reluctant to do so yourself.  I have to admit that I did take advantage of this service remembering I was on holidays after all.

Calamari Ripieni al Sugo (Stuffed Squid)
This recipe serves 6

This dish can be cooked and served as a main, or the Italian way – by doubling the amount of chopped tomatoes and serving the sauce on some pasta as a primo (starter) and then the squid with a serving of salad as a secondo (main).  I didn’t follow any particular recipe, but remembered how mamma would cook them and used the basic ingredients I had on hand.  

  • 6 small squid, each about 15 cm long
  • 185 ml (3/4 cup) olive oil
  • 1 small brown onion finely chopped
  • 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
  • 120 g (2 cups) fresh white breadcrumbs
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • 3 tblsp grated parmesan cheese
  • 3 tblsp chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • 125 ml (1/2 cup) white wine
  • 400 g tin chopped tomatoes (2 cans if you wish to increase the sauce for use on pasta)
  • Salt & pepper to taste
If you ask your fishmonger to clean the squid or calamari, then the rest of the process is a breeze.  Cleaning them however isn’t at all difficult and this youtube clip shows you how.Once cleaned and rinsed, chop the wings and half of the tentacles for the stuffing and set aside.  I kept the other half of the tentacles whole as I like the look of them on the plate. 

Heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil in a pan over a medium heat, add the chopped onion and cook until translucent but not browned.  Add the chopped squid and garlic.  Turn the heat down and cook for 15 – 20 minutes, stirring constantly.  Turn off the heat and stir in the breadcrumbs. Set aside to cool down completely. Once cooled, add the egg, parmesan cheese, parsley, salt and pepper to taste. Mix well.

Use a spoon to stuff the hood of the squid with the mixture, about three-quarters full.  Do not over fill as the body will shrink when cooked. Securely close the opening of the squid with a toothpick. I only filled four of them as two of the hoods were punctured when cleaned and I didn't want to risk them bursting into the sauce.

In a large pan, heat the remainder of the oil, and in a single layer brown the squid on all sides. Turn the heat to medium and add the white wine and cook for 3 minutes, turning the squid several times.  Add the tomatoes and season to taste.  Turn the heat on low, cover with a lid and cook for 40 - 50 minutes, depending on the size of the squid.  I cooked mine for 40 minutes.  Turn them occasionally during the cooking and if the sauce dries out, add a little hot water. The squid are cooked when they feel tender if pricked by a fork.  

Sprinkle with chopped parsley before serving.  I like to slice them and spoon a little of the sauce over each one.  If you increase the quantity of tomato, it makes a lovely sauce over some spaghetti or linguini pasta.  This dish was enjoyed with the perfect country sunset and a few glasses of rose. Thank you Cheryl for the use of your lovely kitchen and the bottle of wine.

Don't forget to read my fellow bloggers posts for their delicious seafood dishes:

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Cucina Conversations: Semifreddo al Vin cotto

Shiraz grapes are used by papa` to make his vino every wine season and chosen for its high sugar content and flavour with touches of berry, coffee, chocolate, black pepper and violets.  He claims it makes the best home-made red wine and we tend to agree with that point of view. It has been his passion for over 40 years and winemaking in our family goes back a few generations; my recount of this can be found here.  So when the Cucina Conversations ladies decided that this month’s topic was going to evolve around drinks or creating a dish using a drink of some sort, my thoughts automatically went to papa`’s wine and of course the vin cotto mamma cooks down from the grape must every wine season.  I have cooked and shared many family sweet recipes using vin cotto on the blog, and while researching I continue to find many more wonderful recipes incorporating this amazing syrup that I call 'liquid gold'. This recipe for semifreddo will surely please and if you haven't cooked with vin cotto before, this will be a great introduction.

Grape juice was highly regarded by ancient Greeks and Romans in its use to sweeten wines long before sugar cane was introduced.  They even experimented with wine in different stages of making and in their cuisine.   According to the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder, vin cotto (also known as vino cotto or mosto cotto) differed by concentration and type of red grape used and was referred to back then by its Latin names - defrutum (one-half of its reduced volumn) or sapa (one-third of its reduced volumn). Essentially concentrated grape syrup was used for preserving fruits such as quince, to sweeten and add flavouring to sauces and added to different types of vegetable and meat dishes. Athenaeus, the Greek grammarian and author of Deipnosophistai (The Gastronomers) makes one mention of a fish tinged with grape must, which he recounts as a paradigm of the art of cooking; noting that such creations were what saved man from cannibalism! Its use over time has extended itself to many sweet and savoury dishes including breads; and more recently been known to be drizzled on top of freshly fallen snow for a scirobetta also known as granita, and mixed with soda water for a refreshing drink suitable for all ages.

The making of vin cotto has not changed over the centuries and is very simple to produce at home as it doesn't require any specialized equipment. The selection of wine grapes however is paramount and only a variety that is high in sugar should be used. After pressing the grapes, the must which is freshly pressed grape juice not yet a product of fermentation is obtained. The filtered grape juice is brought to a gentle boil during which time it is allowed to simmer for an hour and skimmed of any impurities that come to the surface and allowed to slowly cook down  until reduced in volume. Mamma cooks it until it is reduced by 1/2 the original volume. This can take close to 3 hours depending on the quantity and should be watched carefully towards the end to ensure that it doesn't over-reduce or burn. The vin cotto should be condensed and caramelized to have the thickness of maple syrup. The syrup is then cooled and poured into clean bottles sealed with a cork top or clasp seal. It is best stored in a cool dark pantry or refrigerated and can keep up to a year; well only if you can resist temptation.

Papa` loves ice-cream all year round and happy to try a new flavour, so I thought this semifreddo, which is a light semi-frozen desert would please his taste buds especially seeing his favourite grape variety - shiraz and his vin cotto is incorporated. With the addition of chocolate, cherries and hazelnuts this desert is absolutely moreish.  I had frozen some summer red plump cherries especially for this, but other frozen berries of choice would work just as well.    I also love the idea of replacing the cherries during the winter season with either sultanas or dried shiraz grapes soaked in liqueur; and along with the hazelnuts it could be considered a true autumn/winter desert! This recipe has been adapted from Il Baronello. This company along with Maccora Vinocotto produce their own vin cotto whose recipe has also been passed down from generations. Their websites include many varied recipe ideas and both these products are the closest to the 'home made' vin cotto and Australian made - in keeping with my philosophy on buying local. 

Semifreddo al Vincotto
This semifreddo was made with our family’s vin cotto. Unless you make your own, you will need to purchase commercially produced vin cotto and will find it in stores as well as the two websites mentioned above. This desert does not require an ice-cream maker and can be made a few weeks in advance making it perfect for entertaining. It can be kept frozen for up to 3 weeks. 

·         600 ml double cream
·         150 g caster sugar
·         50 g cocoa powder, sifted
·         4 eggs, separated
·         3 tablespoons flavoured liqueur ,ie: Frangelico or Tia Maria
·         3 tablespoons icing sugar
·         150 ml vin cotto, plus extra for serving 
·         80 g roasted hazelnuts, skin removed and roughly chopped
·         2 cups dark cherries, stoned and cut in half (or use frozen cherries)
·         White chocolate shavings to decorate (optional)

Grease a 23 cm x 8 cm loaf pan (I used 2, 26 cm x 9 cm loaf pans) and line with baking paper allowing sides to overhang.

Preparation for custard:
Pour 200 ml of cream in a small saucepan and bring just to the boil. In a heatproof bowl, whisk the caster sugar, cocoa powder and egg yolks. Pour the hot cream over the egg mixture, whisking continuously until combined. Pour mixture back into saucepan and cook over a low heat and whisk continuously until it thickens (3-4 minutes) or coats the back of a spoon.  Do not let it come to a boil.  Remove from heat and place over a bowl of iced water to cool. Cover the surface with plastic wrap to prevent it from drying and allow cooling for 40 minutes.

In a dry bowl, whip egg whites until stiff peaks form. Set aside.

In a separate bowl, whip the remaining cream until soft peaks form.  Add in the liqueur and icing sugar and continue to whip. Gently fold the cooled chocolate custard into the whipped cream and then lightly fold in the whisked egg whites. 

Gently fold in the cherries and hazelnuts. Then gently add in the vin cotto so that there are swirls in the mixture. Pour into the lined tin and cover with plastic wrap. Freeze until firm (6 hours or overnight).

To Serve:
Remove the semifreddo out of the freezer and set aside for a few minutes.  Turn the desert out onto a serving platter and decorate with extra cherries or roasted hazelnuts. Slice portions and finally drizzle some extra vin cotto. Serve.

There are other sweets in my recipe index that use vin cotto, and I look forward to extending its use to savoury dishes over time.  Meanwhile, remember to also visit my fellow bloggers posts and read about their chosen recipes:
  • Marialuisa from Marmellata di Cipolle is excited to share her love of a cocktail using Pimm's
  • Lisa from Italian Kiwi will prepare a stiff drink that goes by the name Gamba di Legno
  • Daniela from La Dani Gourmet will make a light desert using melon called Gelo di Melone;
  • Rosemarie from Turin Mamma will prepare a refreshing coffee and granita delight called Sicilian Mezzo Freddo; and
  • Francesca, from Pancakes and Biscotti will make an aperitif called Prosecco all'Anguria.

Friday, 16 June 2017


At the end of every wine making season, there are two bi-products I make sure I have in my pantry; one is a few bunches of dried shiraz grapes (a variety papa` uses for his wine making) for my cheese board and biscuits, and the other is our vin cotto.  The drying of the fruit has only recently become a passion as I love this small variety of grapes used that contains all those typical flavours found in shiraz wine – touches of berry, coffee, chocolate, black pepper and violets.  The making of vin cotto however has been a family practice passed down from generations.  It is known by regional names such as vinocotto, saba or mosto cotto.  Essentially vin cotto means 'cooked wine' though made from un-fermented grape juice or must and contains no alcohol. I will share our family vin cotto making recipe along with a moreish semifreddo desert as part of my Cucina Conversations edition later this month.

This light agrodolce (sweet & sour) syrup is the perfect balance for sweet and savoury dishes.  Although this ingredient has been utilised by my family for a very long time, in more recent times it has only ever been included  in sweet dishes such as lagana chiapputapanzarotti, ciambelline al vincotto and mamma often uses it within a remedial brew with other wild herbs for a chest cold.  Papa` often talks about nonna's rustic mostaccioli biscuits, known as mustazzuli in their dialect.  Unfortunately this family recipe was never documented, but from my understanding it was very similar to the original ancient base recipe consisting of flour, vin cotto, olive oil and some spices.  If one was fortunate to have access to other ingredients which my grandmother was as they ran a general store, then they were added along with honey.  The more ingredients you add the richer the outcome; and in my search for a recipe from the Lucania (Basilicata) region of Italy, I was able to find several recipes that made reference to similar ingredients.  Some suggested adding almonds while others have also included honey, chocolate and/or mocha coffee. The recipe I share with you here is the closest I could find that fits the description given by papa`.  This recipe has been adapted to include papa`s list of must have ingredients, but mention goes to Il Baronello as I was also inspired by the shaping of Angela's mostaccioli which I totally had fun making.  The traditional shape of mostaccioli in the Lucania region is a slab rolled out to approximately 1 ½ cm in thickness and then cut into diamonds or rectangles, and the way mamma makes them.

Makes about 40 biscuits depending on size and shape

·         160 g whole un roasted almonds (125 g or 1 cup finely ground after roasting)   
·         ½ cup sugar
·         ½ cup honey
·         3/4 cup vin cotto *(refer to note below)
·         1/8 cup vegetable oil
·         3 eggs
·         2 tsp baking powder
·         1 tsp cinnamon
·         1 tsp all spice
·         ½ tsp vanilla extract
·         Finely grated rind of ½ orange
·         Finely grated rind of ½ lemon
·        All-purpose flour (as much as needed) I used 5 cups, and dependant on the size of your       eggs)

*I generally don’t promote products, and as mentioned I made these mostaccioli with our family’s vin cotto; however in order for you to try this recipe you will need to purchase commercially produced vin cotto (unless you also make your own). Below are 2 I recommend as they are the closest to the 'home made' product and are Australian made, in keeping with my philosophy on buying local. As I have not cooked with these products before, I  don’t feel confident highlighting one over the other. Click on their link:


Pre- heat oven at 180 C degrees

Spread 160 g almonds in a single layer on a baking sheet and roast for approximately 15-20 minutes in a moderate oven, being careful not to burn them.  Allow to fully cool down before grinding finely and weigh out 125 g.

In a bowl sift flour and baking powder and set aside. In a separate bowl, add eggs and beat with an electric beater.  Add vegetable oil, honey and vin cotto to the egg mixture and mix well.  Then add the sugar, vanilla extract, cinnamon, all spice and mix well. Finally add the ground roasted almonds, finely grated zest of half an orange and half a lemon and mix through.

Add the flour and baking powder one cup at a time mixing with a wooden spoon, until you have a consistency of a cookie dough that can easily be rolled out. Knead the dough until all the flour is thoroughly combined. Roll into a ball and place in a bowl covering with plastic wrap. Let the dough rest for about ½ an hour.

Divide the dough into quarters, working with one quarter at a time while covering the rest. Dust your work bench with a little flour and roll out the first quarter of the dough to about a 1 ½ cm thick rod.  Cut to desired length and shape into an ‘S’ shape or cut into the ends and twirl them out.  Lots of creative freedom is given here!

Place the mostaccioli on a line tray and bake for about 10 – 15 minutes, or until they are golden in colour.  They will harden as they cool down.  Cool completely before storing in an airtight container. Enjoy!

Monday, 5 June 2017

Chestnut & Mushroom Ravioli inspired by an Autumn outing in Daylesford, Victoria

The changing of seasons to the much cooler weather of autumn and now winter can be a bit of a blow, but softened knowing that seasonal produce such as chestnuts will be in abundance.  For me it's the season that calls for a drive to the country to take in all its visual beauty. Daylesford, situated north-west of Melbourne is only an hour and a half driving distance away from our home, and has become one of my favourite little escape destination that can be factored in as a day trip. This quaint township and its neighbouring Hepburn Springs, is lined with deciduous trees that erupt into a blaze of colour during the autumn season and with its beautiful mountain scenery, forests, gardens and lakes, has definitely a magnetic pull. This setting became the perfect day trip and an excuse to stop by at a local orchard to purchase some chestnuts on our way back home. 

Although chestnuts are not native to Australia, their introduction to the gold mining areas of Daylesford, Beechworth and the Buckland Valley in Victoria as well as the Blue Mountains in New South Wales dates back to the 1850's with the influx of migrants during the Gold Rush. It's reported that some of the oldest chestnut trees dating back to this period, indicate that miners were most likely to have brought chestnuts with them for consumption on their long journey to Australia and then planting the remaining nuts. However the development of the chestnut industry in Australia - 100 years later, came about with the new wave of Southern European immigrants mainly from Italy and Greece. Not appreciating the basic 1950's Australian diet and craving the foods of their homelands, these "New Australians" who had moved out into the surrounding farming areas ensured they also had their home garden and orchard supplying fruit, vegetables, wine grapes and of course chestnuts. Later on in the 1970's migrants living in the cities would travel to areas in the country every autumn to get their supply of chestnuts. This in turn encouraged farmers to plant more trees on a commercial basis and so by the 1980's the chestnut industry in Australia had truly begun.

Chestnuts in my family have only ever been eaten roasted over a fire, cooked with aromatics and incorporated in sweets such as the panzerotti di castagne whose recipe is found here. So it has been my aim this season to use this flavoursome nut in some savoury dishes like stuffing for quail and a pasta dish of some sort. Whenever I am lost for ideas on pairing ingredients I tend to go to my trusted The Cooks Companion by Stephanie Alexander.  Here I was able to find a perfect match for chestnuts pairing it with the nutty flavoured porcini mushrooms, and what better way to come together than in a pasta dish creating a filling with these two main ingredients and encasing them as ravioli.  It took several attempts and a little tweaking to ensure the flavours were well balanced as chestnuts are naturally sweet and the distinctive strong and unique flavour of the porcini mushrooms needed to be toned down.  So I incorporated more of the swiss brown cup variety and less of the porcini mushrooms. You can also use the white button variety. Sage compliments mushrooms and chestnuts perfectly, so the filling also incorporates a small amount of this herb along with some parmesan cheese and an egg for binding. You can shape the ravioli any way you like, but I chose a mezzeluna or half-moon shape the way mamma shapes hers. As a child, it was my assigned task to securely press the edges with a fork to ensure no filling would escape during the cooking process.  As these ravioli pack a punch in flavour, all that is needed is a very simple crispy sage and butter sauce, an extra grating of parmesan cheese on top and some cracked pepper if desired.

Chestnut & Mushroom Ravioli

Ingredients (makes about 50 ravioli) The quantities for the sauce is for half the ravioli made, while I froze the other 25 uncooked.

For the filling:
  • 300 g fresh chestnuts (200 g of peeled, cooked and finely crumbled chestnuts)
  • 250 g swiss brown mushrooms (cup variety) finely chopped
  • 10 g of dried porcini mushrooms, re-hydrated in warm water, drained/squeeze out excess moisture and finely chop
  • 1 egg
  • 4 medium sized sage leaves finely chopped
  • 30 g grated parmesan cheese
  • 1 pinch salt
For the pasta:
  • 200 g all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 pinch salt
To serve:
  • 20 small leaves of fresh sage
  • 80 g butter
  • 40 g grated parmesan cheese
  • cracked pepper to taste
Method for the Filling: 
Rinse 300 g fresh chestnuts and cut a slash across one side of the shell using a sharp knife. Place chestnuts in a pot full of cold water (enough to fully cover them). Bring to the boil and allow to cook until tender. Duration of time will depend on the size of the chestnut, but approximately 30 minutes. You can check if they are cooked through by inserting a sharp knife into the chestnut like you would through a cooked potato. Drain the chestnuts and allow to cool slightly before peeling both skins with a knife. Finely crumble the cooked chestnuts into a large bowl and set aside.

Finely chop the swiss brown mushrooms and the sage leaves and combine both with the chestnut mixture. Place the porcini mushrooms into a small bowl of warm water and allow them to re-hydrate for 10 minutes. Drain liquid squeezing out as much of the moisture and finely chop the mushrooms. Add the porcini mushrooms to the chestnut mixture.  Combine with parmesan cheese, one egg and season with salt to taste. The mixture should be well combined and allowed to rest while the pasta dough is prepared.

Method for the pasta dough:
Place the flour in a large bowl and make a well in the center. Crack 2 eggs in the center of the well and add a pinch of salt. With a fork or your finger tips, begin to whisk the eggs and incorporating the flour little by little. Continue incorporating the flour until all combined and then begin to knead using your hands to bring the dough together until the dough is smooth and elastic.  Depending on the size of your eggs, you may need to add more flour if the dough is too sticky or a small amount of water if the dough is too dry. NB: this process can also be done using a food processor. Wrap the dough in plastic and allow it to rest for 30 minutes at room temperature.

The pasta sheets can be made using the pasta machine or rolled out very thinly using a rolling pin. Cut the dough into small pieces and keep covered with plastic wrap so the dough does not dry out while working each piece at a time. Using the pasta machine at the widest setting roll out the pasta. With each passing through of the pasta sheet, fold and dust with flour and reduce the setting, working down to the narrow (second last) setting. The pasta sheets should be smooth and thin enough (about 1 -2 mm) to support the filling. Lay each pasta sheet on a lightly floured board and cover with cloth to stop them from drying out.

Once all the sheets have been rolled out, cut each sheet to approximately 10 cm width to allow for the filling and folding over. Keep the sheets covered while filling one sheet at a time to avoid the sheets from drying out.  Place a teaspoon full of mixture on one side of the pasta sheet keeping 1 cm in from the edge and 3 cm apart. Brush some water on the edge of the pasta, then fold the pasta length-ways and seal first on one edge and then cupping your hand around the filling, seal the rest of the edges. Try to push out as much of the air that tends to get trapped inside. 

With a crimped pastry cutter or sharp knife cut around the edges forming a half moon shape.  To ensure a secure seal use the prong of a fork to press down around the half moon shape ravioli creating a pattern. Any pasta scraps can be passed through to make another sheet, and using up all the mixture to make the last of the ravioli.  

Cook the ravioli in a large pot of salted simmering water for about 3 minutes or until they begin to float to the surface. Meanwhile, prepare the sauce by melting the butter gently in a large shallow fry pan together with the small sage leaves. Take care not to burn the sage leaves. Remove the ravioli with a slotted spoon ensuring that all the water is drained and place directly into the pan containing the sauce. Toss through and serve immediately with a grating of parmesan cheese and some cracked pepper if desired.


Thursday, 18 May 2017

Cucina Conversations: Recchietelle aka Orecchiette (Little Ears)

I'd like to make a proclamation:  It's not Sunday without a plate of pasta di casa (fresh handmade pasta) for lunch!  As a family it was what we all anticipated and looked forward to and a lovely way to end the weekend.  Mamma would get up early and commence preparing the pasta dough while a huge pot of sugo (sauce) cooked away, slowly releasing its aromas that in turn became our gentle Sunday morning wake up call.  We often joined in to lend a helping hand whilst learning to create varied pasta shapes. If it wasn’t hand cut tagliatelle, strascinati, or fusilli, mamma would make orecchiette to accompany her meat sauce.  The sugo was her one pot wonder serving as the rich condiment to toss the pasta through for our primo piatto, as well as providing the tender portion of meat for our secondo.  The sauce was either flavoured with polpette (meatballs) or ossobuco and sometimes pork, rabbit or quail depending on the season.  Many times the pasta and meat came together in one serving as we preferred. I thank my grandmothers for these traditions, and even though they were from the same region of Basilicata, they came from different townships and had their particular specialty when it came to pasta making.  Mamma learnt to make pasta from both these women, so I will be dedicating some time to adding pasta dishes to the blog and sharing with you the process of making distinctive shapes that mamma has in turn taught me.  

Italians do love to give quite descriptive names to their pasta shapes and it appears that each region has their own name for the same pasta type. Many would know le orecchiette (little ears), traditionally made by hand and nowadays also sold as dried store-bought pasta.   Though orecchiette pasta is more closely associated with the Puglia region of Italy and cooked with cime di rapa (broccoli rabe), this pasta shape goes by different names depending on where it is made.  In Basilicata, Campania and Molise they are also known by their dialect name of ‘recchietelle’, in Abruzzo they are known as 'orecchie di prete' (priest's ears) and orecchini in Lazio.  Le orecchiette whose size is diminutive is joined by its bigger cousin, ‘tapparelle’ - slang for big ears and three times the size. The photo below shows the traditional little ears I made and the next size up; still considered small in comparison to tapparelle and the perfect size for a meat sauce to be mixed through.

This pasta shape may appear challenging to make, however it is one that can easily be mastered with a little practice.  In fact from the first one formed to the last, you will begin to see your skills improve, but then what can be more characteristic than some imperfections; the reality is that no two ears are ever alike, not even when they belong to the rightful owner!  Mamma though, a trained seamstress has always been a perfectionist and fascinates me in the precision in which she makes her orecchiette.  She never owned a pasta machine until later in time, so perfected her skills in making these special pasta types. I've spent some time with her sharpening my skills in making orecchiette, cavatelli and fusilli (also known as ferricelli);  like her I have found pasta making so therapeutic and so much fun especially when a few of us gather together.  

Papa` as usual lends a helping hand and loves to be amongst it all entertaining us with his crafty comments.  With tongue in cheek he would declare: ‘Eh, altro che orecchiette! Implying that they are quite large and no way little as the name suggests; and then with great timing the analogies creep in and he exclaims: ‘mi fischia l’orecchio, qualcuno mi nomina!’ – an Italian saying literally translating as (my ear is ringing, someone is talking about me); an interesting concept also believed to be connected with the evil eye and disfavour.  So my friends beware, if your left ear is ringing as opposed to the right, someone is surely talking bad about you and you are advised to bite your finger so that the perpetrator will bite their tongue! Now enough with the ear fallacies and as my father would exclaim: Quando si mangia?! (when do we eat?!) But before I boil the water and take you through the making of this fresh pasta that is carved with a knife and then turned and cupped like ears - thus its name, a bit about the dishes my fellow bloggers will be sharing.

Throughout this month we have decided to schedule in some fun and will be posting about foods Italians have for some reason or another named after or make references to body parts; some names are quite amusing while others are a little cheeky to say the least. Francesca will tantalise your taste buds with Saltimbocca alla Romana, and as the name suggests, these pieces of veal are so delicious that they’ll just jump into your mouth; Daniela will explore a Ligurian dish with baccala` and potatoes called Brandacujun – a name composed of the words brandare (to shake or toss) and cujun (testicles) …will leave that to your imaginations!!! Rosemarie is making a pasta dish also from Liguria shaped like tummies and called Pansotti filled with a mixture of parboiled wild herbs; Marialuisa will create a Sicilian sweet shaped and named after the breasts of the patron saint of Catania in Sicily called Minne di Sant'Agata and Flavia is baking some well known Italian cookies called Lingue di Gatto whose shape happens to resemble a cats tongue.

Recchietelle aka Orecchiette (Little Ears)

Traditionally the dough for orecchiette uses semola, coarse flour made with durum wheat.  Durum meaning hard, has high gluten content and is considered the fundamental ingredient in pasta making when not using eggs and therefore take a little longer to cook through. In the Basilicata region where my parents are from this pasta shape is served with either a meat based or a simple tomato sauce spiced up with peperoncini forti (chilli). The orecchiette I share here have been made the next size up as they will be served with a beef ragu` sauce, allowing each orecchietta to randomly fill up with pieces of meat, and of course a good grating of pecorino cheese on top.  

This recipe is only for the making of the pasta, leaving you freedom to make whatever type of sauce you prefer.  Serves 8

2 parts semola flour  - (I used 500 g), plus extra for dusting your work surface
1 part all-purpose flour - (I used 250 g)
1 tsp salt
warm water (I used about 500 ml)

Like most homemade pasta, the orecchiette dough begins with a well.  I like to use a large bowl for this step to ensure no liquid escapes. Mix the two flours and salt together and create a well in the centre. Gradually add the warm water while working in the flour with your fingers or a fork.  The warm water will help develop the gluten in the flour making it very elastic.  Add enough water to ensure that the dough is soft and workable but not gooey. After the dough is mixed, it needs at least 10 minutes of serious kneading on a lightly floured surface until the dough is very smooth and firm. Roll the dough into a ball and cover in plastic wrap to allow for resting for 1 hour.  Shaping the orecchiette is now the fun part.  

Dust the work surface with the semolina flour and cut off a thin strip of dough. Using your hands gently roll this strip into a long, thin sausage about 2 cm in diameter for the medium sized orecchiette.  Then cut the strips into 2 cm long pellets – each of these pieces will be formed into an orecchietta. The individually cut piece is then dragged on a board towards you with a knife, and then turned out over the thumb.  The roughness on the dome of the orecchiette which is quite characteristic of this shape is created when the knife glides over the pasta dough before being turned out.  The pasta can be cooked immediately or air dried and frozen for future meals when one is time poor. 

Below is a visual representation of the steps involved in forming the orecchiette.  A short clip of this process is found on my Instagram account. I hope you enjoy making these 'recchietelle aka orecchiette, and there will be more posts following dedicated to pasta making at The Heirloom Chronicles so stay tuned. Buon Appetito!