Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Cucina Conversations: Taralli all'Uovo

I recall reading the words of Laurie Colwin that have resonated with me and in turn influenced this post. She wrote, ‘No one who cooks actually cooks alone. Even at our most solitary, we are surrounded by memories of cooks past, the advice of cooks present as well as the guidance of recipes from cookbooks'. I have been recipe testing these taralli in the last month from a hand written list of ingredients with vague quantities and an incomplete list of instructions to follow; a recipe belonging to my late mother in law, not written by her but by a friend whilst learning to make them. Those who have been reading my blog know that documenting and preserving our family recipes has been my aim from the onset of this blog. I hope that these recipes will also inspire the next generation to create their own versions of dishes, and to add their own flavour and style. It is therefore a cook who has now past - my mother in law whose recipe I have chosen to draw from and the advice and assistance of a cook present - my mother, in the preparation of these taralli all'uovo for the coming Easter.

Hand written and titled by the person who transcribed the recipe, Taralli Bolliti di Giovanna, and in my mother in laws Sicilian dialect known as biscotti scaurati (boiled biscuits) are characterized by the fact that they are boiled before baked, barely sweet and delicately flavoured.  On many occasions we enjoyed these biscuits made by Giovanna for our family celebrations and at Easter time; I therefore never needed to make them myself.  With Giovanna’s passing, many of her recipes left with her, never documented nor cooked by me with her guidance.  So this hand written recipe resurfaced and found its way back in my kitchen via her friend.  Over a coffee we got talking about what an excellent cook she was and these biscuits - whose technical name is taralli due to their shape, shiny appearance and crisp cracker texture.  Like many cooks of this generation, they cooked from experience and intuition and seldom wrote full detailed instructions.  This recipe was noted whilst observing and in certain sections there were gaps that needed to be filled in - such as how long the dough needed to be worked, boiling and baking duration, to name a few.  This is where research and advice of cooks present has assisted me in filling those disparities along with a few too many trials and errors. Admittedly, I have lost count of how many eggs I have used to recipe test these taralli.  I needed to persevere and save this recipes integrity; after all I do consider it an heirloom. With advice from my sister in law and my husband, and an extra pair of hands and guidance from mamma we were able to fill the gaps. Of course with my husbands approval which came through taste testing, I can confidently say we now have Giovanna's recipe trialled and tested, and finally documented.  
Taralli such as the ones mamma makes -  taralli con finocchio are very typical of the southern Italian regions of Campania, Puglia and Calabria, traditionally using simple ingredients - flour, water, oil, salt, and fennel seeds.  Taralli all’uovo such as this recipe are typical of Puglia, so I’m not too sure how this recipe appeared amongst Giovanna’s array of Sicilian biscotti, however I have been told that they've been in the family for a very long time.  The Sicilian version of these taralli, which Giovanna also made have the addition of milk and glazed with lemon scented icing sugar, known as taralli al limone (lemon taralli). Wherever these taralli originated from, she definitely put her own unique stamp on them in her use of spices such as cinnamon and aniseed combined, as well as how she shaped them. Her recipe mentions the use of lard which she liked to include in her baking, but there is an indication of the possible use of olive oil as a substitute. The traditional shape is a ring and after boiling them they are scored along the outer circumference so that they open when baked.  My mother in law would form some as rings and others she would cut into with a knife to create daisies, dog and dove shapes.  The dog and dove shapes have yet to be mastered by me, but I have created another dove shape which I am certain she would have liked. The recipe also uses a great deal of eggs leading me to question how taralli came about incorporating so many eggs. 

Easter and its traditional foods are filled with references to rebirth of all kinds, commemorating Christ's resurrection from the dead but also continuing the European springtime festivals from pre-Christian times that celebrated new growth after the dormancy of winter; the egg is one such symbol of new life.  Why so many eggs you ask?  In the early Christian calendar eggs were forbidden and restricted during the austerity of Lent as were meat and other products derived from an animal. This made them bountiful and exciting forty days later. Those who were lucky to have their own chickens were left with a large quantity of eggs laid and not consumed.  So in the lead up to Easter baking and moving out of this period of abstinence, eggs were used in cooking both sweet and savoury dishes.  Each Italian region has an Easter dish, a specialty pie, a sweet bread and biscuits enriched with eggs.

This month the Cucina Conversations girls have pulled together a collection of recipes to help celebrate Easter.  Whether they were passed down to us and stood the test of time, or favourites from regions of Italy we come from, they will reveal aspects of cooking we have learnt from family and friends along our culinary journeys. So draw some inspiration from these current fellow cooks by clicking on their links below.  The recipes they will share include:
  • Pitta Chijna - a rustic pie filled with cheese, eggs and Calabrian sausage at Marmellata di Cipolle
  • Focaccia Veneta  - a three times leavened Easter cake from the Veneto region at Flavias Flavors
  • Torta Pasqualina  - a traditional ricotta, spinach & egg Easter pie at Pancakes and Biscotti
  • Torta coi Bischeri  - a pie typical of Versilia with a chocolate and rice filling at La Dani Gourmet
  • A surprise recipe to be revealed soon which I will link you to in due course at Italian Kiwi

Taralli all’Uovo
Recipe makes 50 taralli


800 g all-purpose flour
200 g self-raising flour
10 eggs (room temperature)
½ cup sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground aniseed
4 tblsp brandy
10 tbsp olive oil or melted lard

You can use a stand mixer, or a hand mixer with both whisk and dough hook attachment.  Alternatively a whisk to beat the eggs and good old fashioned elbow grease when it comes to kneading the dough.  It is recommended that the final kneading is done through the pasta machine to ensure a well worked and smooth dough.

In a large bowl, sift together both flours, cinnamon, aniseed and set aside.

In a large mixing bowl add eggs and sugar and whisk until thick and creamy.  Add oil and brandy and continue to whisk together.

On low speed, add 1/3 of the flour mixture and combine well.  It is now time to switch to the dough hook or alternatively begin mixing by hand and incorporate the remainder of the flour. Knead the dough for 15 minutes.  Transfer the dough to a floured board, roll it into a log, cover with cling wrap and then a tea towel and allow it to rest for 30 minutes at room temperature.

Cut dough into manageable pieces and press flat so that they fit through the pasta machine set at the widest setting.  Pass each piece through 10 times to achieve well worked and smooth dough.  Alternatively knead each piece by hand until you achieve a smooth dough. 

Roll out small pieces of dough to the thickness of a finger and turn into a donut shape ensuring ends are pressed together.  You can make them large or small in diameter.  I used the length of my knife as a guide so that all were cut to the same length. Flower shapes can then be created by cutting through half way as you move around the outer circle. The doves are knotted and one end cut into to resemble the doves tail.  Once all taralli are formed, place on a tray and allow them to rest for 3 - 4 hours covered with a tea towel.  During this time, the taralli will increase in size.

Once the 3 - 4 hours are up, bring a large pot of water to a hot temperature, but not boiling nor simmering.  When you begin to see a few bubbles forming, place 5 - 7 taralli in the water, ensuring there is no overcrowding.  Once the taralli rise to the surface remove them with a slotted spoon and place them on a rack to drain and cool down.  Repeat the process until all boiled.  The overall texture of the taralli should be smooth with a sheen.

Using a knife, score the exterior of the taralli and place on a lined baking tray.

Bake in a preheated oven at 180 C (375 F) for 10 minutes, and then reduce to 160 C (325 F) for another 20-25 minutes until cracked and light golden in colour. 

A few points to note:
  • In my first attempt at making these taralli, I didn't use the pasta machine to work the dough and the taralli cracked during the boiling process. I recommend that the dough be kneaded for a longer period of time or use the pasta machine to help with this process.
  • My mother in law would allow them to rest overnight before boiling them. I trialed both methods and found there was no difference with the overall outcome, so I have suggested 3 - 4 hours in this final recipe, but left to the discretion of the reader. 
  • Ensure that you don't overcook the taralli when boiling them, as they turn out chewy and dense, not crispy and light as they should be once baked.  
  • Adjusting the oven temperature after 10 minutes ensures that the taralli have enough time to rise and open where scored and achieve a light golden colour allowing them to dry out evenly at the lower temperature.

I hope you enjoy making these taralli as much as I did and are inspired to create your own shapes. Wishing you all a peaceful Easter. 

Monday, 3 April 2017

Wild Harvest: Marmellata di Fichi d'India (Prickly Pear Jam)

Although not a fruit grown in my parent’s current back yard, it is one that I recall in the back garden of our Victorian single fronted home in Melbourne. The distinctive cultural contrast was evident through the homes facades and what was growing in the back. Whether it was a fig, olive, or nespole tree or a prickly pear cactus, I am certain we weren't the only Italian family in the street with these unusual fruits growing in our front or back yards. Who would think that this ugly, spiky fruit from an invasive succulent plant known by its scientific name as opuntia vulgaris mill or in Italian ficho d'india, would eventually be seen and sold at markets and in fruit shops today.

Once considered a pest in Australia, it is now promoted for its antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties; treating diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity and even hangovers. It is said to be high in amino acids, fiber, B vitamin, magnesium , and iron.  According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the first recorded introduction of prickly pear was attributed to Governor Phillip at Port Jackson in 1788. The reason for its introduction to the new colony was to create a cochineal industry.  A cochineal is an insect that feeds on certain species of cactus and from which a scarlet dye is obtained; at the time used to colour the distinctive red coats of the British soldiers.  Many of these cacti plants are growing wild and seen bordering farm lands and countryside in rural Australia and many still feature in suburban backyards for their fruit. 

This small box of fichi d'india (prickly pears) were passed onto me by papa` from a friend who still grows them in his backyard.  I have to confess though that I cannot recall the last time I ate one since a very young age and only ever eaten raw.  It was also the only fruit growing in our garden that I was not allowed to pick, handle or peel on my own due to its finely barbed bristles and there are many stories of the trials and errors of peeling this fruit, and the pain that it inflicted.  I was told that my husband’s father would undertake a very lengthy process of removing the spikes before presenting them to the family table which consisted of emptying the box on the grass and with a hard broom brushing off their spikes and hosing them down with water.  Then with heavy duty garden gloves and tongs in hand he would inspect each one.  Once at the table the art of peeling a prickly pear involved knife and fork. At no point in time would handling the fruit with your hands be allowed.

The fate of these prickly pears was determined by my love of preserving the seasons harvest and so a jam recipe was kindly forwarded onto me by an Instagram friend Lana @mialanina.  A liqueur recipe using this fruit was also suggested - one that I will surely try. Varied recipe suggestions that came through from others included prickly pear paste, and ice-creams. I was also informed that in Sardegna it is turned into a jam and used as a filling for their renowned tilicas biscuits.   

Marmellata di Fichi d'India (Prickly Pear Jam)

This recipe was kindly supplied by Lana @mialanina

Makes one medium sized or two small sized jars of jam

This is a very simple recipe to follow and the quantity of fruit is purely dependent on how much you have available. When making jam, the fruit pulp to sugar ratio should be equal, so adjust your quantities accordingly.


10 prickly pears
sugar equal quantity to fruit pulp without seeds
grated rind of 1 organic lemon
grated rind of 1 organic orange

Cleaning the prickly pear according to this recipe requires immersing the whole fruit with skin on in water using tongs and allowing them to soak for an hour, changing the water a few times.  This will soften the spikes and allow for easy cleaning.  I still undertook the method of using knife and folk to remove the skin as seen below, which means that there is no handling of the fruit with bare hands.

Once all the fruit is peeled, place in a heavy based saucepan and on a low heat with lid on cook until the fruit begins to break down, approximately 15 minutes.  The next process is to separate the pulp from the seeds by passing fruit through a sieve pressing with the back of a spoon into a bowl.  The pulp will appear runny similar to a smoothie. You could end the process here and drink it as is, enjoying its nutrients or continue on to make the jam.

Weigh the pulp and transfer into the same saucepan.  Weigh equal amounts of sugar to pulp and place the sugar in the saucepan along with pulp. Cook on low heat and stir occasionally until the setting point has been reached. Meanwhile grate the orange and lemon rind and add to the jam at the very end of the cooking process. I cooked the jam for a further 10 minutes in order for the citrus flavours to infuse into the jam.

Pour the hot jam into one medium or two small sterilized jars and seal while still hot. This jam makes a lovely tart or simply enjoyed for breakfast on toast.  Half of this jam ended up in a crostata which I shared with my parents.  I am currently enjoying the last slice while finishing off this post! :)

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Cucina Conversations: Crocchette di Patate e Cicoria (Potato & Chicory Croquettes)

Gently blowing a wish into the air through a dandelion puff while playing in the garden was a childhood favourite pass time spent alongside my parents who were tending to their vegetable patch. Little had I known that mamma also loved this wild green known as Tarassaco (Taraxacum officinale) or in more familiar terms as cicoria burdacultivating both its jaggered leaves for cooking and its long trap root for medicinal purposes. Papa`oblivious to all of this would pull them out along with other weeds; occasionally we would notice some bitter undertones in our side of sauteed greens but were none the wiser for a very long time. This dandelion plant which I wrote about in my new section to the blog titled Wild Harvest, became a staple green on our dinner plates. Its bitterness we quickly became accustomed to over time and began to appreciate. Quietly, mamma continued to inform herself of its nutrients,  purifying and anti-inflammatory properties based on what she had learnt from her mother.  Of course the endless readings from the health section of Oggi magazine that my sister borrowed for her from the library further ignited her passion on health; and later to be gifted an Italian health book on erbe medicinali (medicinal herbs) from a friend.  

This edible wild green has now become my fascination and I am looking at ways of using it more in my cooking for the same reasons as mamma did.  The combination of a bitter green with a mash of creamy potatoes used in this recipe, will mellow the bitterness, complimenting each other so well and making a perfect introduction to the dandelion greens.  However, if you don't feel confident using the wild variety, you can use the market bought Italian chicory leaf vegetable called catalogna frastagliata, which is just as bitter.  In fact, any leafy green will work well if you are not keen on bitter flavours, such as the very mild spinach or kale.  

Along with my fellow bloggers from Cucina Conversations, we will share with you various vegetarian and vegan recipes for this lean month of Quaresima (Lent). Crocchette di patate e cicoria (potato & chichory croquettes) is my recipe choice that mamma often made for us when meat was not eaten during this period of time; a favourite of mine, and a dish my girls grew up loving as well.  It was a great way of hiding some greens when they went through a fussy period of eating and later I even began adding cooked tuna within the mix for added nutrients when they refused to eat fish.  Then once my eldest daughter decided to go totally vegan about 2 years ago, I stopped making them completely as I couldn't get my head around the notion of vegan cooking.  Over time and in the last month with the idea of including wild greens in my cooking, this recipe has resurrected and I have begun experimenting with ways of combining bitter flavours to this creamy mix of potato 'deliciousness'. This dish is categorised as a vegetarian recipe, which I have also recipe tested and made as a vegan option for my daughter by omitting some ingredients and replacing them with others. The ingredients and methods for both vegetarian and vegan options have been presented below.

The girls from Cucina Conversations will also post throughout the week and share their lean recipes.  Marialuisa shares her recipe for a side of silverbeet with cheese called pasticcio di bieta e formaggio  at  Marmellata di Cipolle; Rosemarie prepares one of my favourite vegetables - artichokes, in a dish called carciofi trifolati at Turin Mamma; Daniela shares a recipe for a lean pasta bake called  pasta al forno di magro at La Dani Gourmet; while Lisa bakes a torta salata con zucca e radicchio at Italian Kiwi.   Francesca cooks a frittata di spaghetti e asparagi at Pancakes and Biscotti and Flavia bakes a rustic spinach tart called torta rustica di spinaci at Flavias Flavors. As you can see, there are so many delicious meals planned out so make sure you check out all their blog post.

Crocchette di Patate e Cicoria (Potato & Chicory Croquettes) 
Makes 12 depending on size

For those that suffer from allergies or choose to stay away from any animal products completely, you can enjoy this dish as well.  NB: highlighted sections denote ingredients and method for vegan option.

For Croquettes:
350 g desiree or any other floury potatoes
200 g chicory or dandelion leaves or any leafy green
80 g grated parmesan cheese (omit for vegan option and replace with 1/4 cup Nutritional Yeast Flakes  This is a cheese flavour enhancer packed with nutrients. Alternatively add other spices of choice)
1 tbsp finely chopped parsley
1 clove garlic crushed
4 tbsp of olive oil
salt  & pepper to taste
1 egg lightly beaten (replace egg with 1 tbsp of white chia seeds to 3 tbsp of water

Chia seeds are the best way to create the same binding technique that eggs naturally possess and pack in lots of protein, fibre and omega 3 fatty acids so you won’t be missing out on nutrition. Chia seeds mixed in liquid become gelatinous expanding and soaking in the liquid. This makes them a great swap for eggs in recipes. It is best to use ground chia seeds which you can grind in a mortar and pestle. 1 tablespoon of ground chia seeds to 3 tablespoons of water equates to 1 medium sized egg. Stir and leave to soak the water up for 5 minutes until it becomes gooey.

For Crumb:
1 egg lightly beaten (omit for vegan option)
plain flour (flour not required for vegan option)
breadcrumbs (quantity as needed)

For Frying:
sunflower, vegetable or grape seed oil

Rinse and place whole unpeeled potatoes in a saucepan of cold water and bring to the boil.  Cook until potatoes are tender when pierced with a knife. Drain, peel and finely mash potatoes with fork or through a potato ricer. Set aside to cool completely.

Meanwhile, trim and rinse the chicory / dandelion or other green leaves and finely chop them.  Peel and crush one clove of garlic and place in a fry pan with 4 tbsp of olive oil and sauté the garlic along with the greens for about 15 minutes until cooked and all its liquid has evaporated. It is important that all moisture in the greens is removed to ensure a dry mix.  Remove from the heat to allow the greens to cool completely. 

In a large bowl place the mashed potatoes, cooked greens, parmesan cheese, parsley, beaten egg (or soaked chia seed mix), salt and pepper and mix well to combine all ingredients. Depending on how sticky the mixture is, you may need to add some corn flour to obtain a firm yet pliable mixture. 

Place flour, egg mixture (omit both for vegan option) and breadcrumbs in separate bowls.  Using wet hands place a tablespoon full of mixture and shape into logs of approximately 6 cm long and 3 cm wide and place on a tray. Repeat with the remaining mixture which should give you about 12 croquettes in total.  Roll the formed croquettes in the flour, then dip in the egg and finish by rolling in the breadcrumbs.  For a crunchier crust, you can repeat the process several times. For the vegan option, roll directly in the bread crumbs several times to fully coat and absorb all the moisture. Refrigerate the croquettes for half an hour as this helps with keeping their shape when cooking.

For the vegan option, I recommend baking them in an oven to avoid too much handling.  Place croquettes on a tray that has been lightly sprayed with vegetable oil. I also lightly spray the croquettes. This allows for crisping on both sides without needing to turn them.  I have often baked croquettes and find them to be just as delicious. 

In a large heavy based frying pan, fill with 2 inches of oil and heat up to 180 C.  You can also test how hot the oil is by dropping in a cube of bread. It should turn golden in 5 seconds.  Cook the croquettes in small batches - 4 or 5 at a time, turning regularly until golden.  Drain on kitchen paper and repeat with the remaining croquettes. 

The croquettes should be served hot maintaining their crunchy exterior and soft center, but also lovely cold for lunches making a great school snack, finger food or enjoyed at a picnic lunch.  Experiment with different greens if you prefer the milder flavours, but I absolutely love the combination.  I hope the inclusion of the vegan recipe will assist in providing options as it has for me.

Stay tuned for next months Cucina Conversations which is all about Easter recipes!

Friday, 17 March 2017

Wild Harvest: Cicoria e Pane Cotto (Cooked Bread with Chicory)

Welcome to my long overdue addition to The Heirloom Chronicles blog titled Wild Harvest.  This personal blog would not be what it set out to be without reference to and inclusion of mamma's favourite part of the garden and wild greens. A keen researcher of all things herbal and remedial with most of her favourite readings based around these topics; mamma has been my inspiration for this extension of discovery and learning which ties back to 'cucina povera' (peasant cooking).  Amongst their seasonal vegetables, you are bound to find some strange looking erbe (herbs) or wild edible greens that have been selectively planted or just happen to sprout from a neglected corner of their orto (garden).  Ask mamma what they are and she will happily engage in conversation with you about their medicinal values and how to prepare brews to remedy this and that. The inclusion of these greens into her cooking is not unfamiliar to us growing up, so this new section will be filled with informative readings and interesting recipes that will encourage you to explore different flavours and reap their health benefits too.  

We begin with a perennial bitter green called cicoria (chicory), that mamma has allowed to grow naturally in her garden and continues to cultivate.  A culinary heritage which was transported over the seas with migration, and for many Italians in Australia not only does it remind them of their origins, but remains a staple in their traditional Mediterranean diet. Italian immigrants who came to Australia must have been overjoyed when they discovered the presence of wild chicory which both surrounded and dotted their urban habitats.  Accustomed to a simple agrarian lifestyle and to scarcity, I am certain they delighted in the realization that they could simply walk to the nearest empty field or suburban park, carving knife in hand, and pluck as much of the leafy green as they could carry. True, not everyone appreciates wild chicory, some despise not only its bitter taste, but also the customs surrounding its harvest and consumption. I recall my mother engaging in such practice and invariably me feeling a little embarrassed that this should happen while out enjoying a family picnic; harvesting chicory outside of our own backyard was simply not cool.

Wild chicory comes in at least two varieties: Tarassaco (Taraxacum officinale) a large genus of flowering plants in the family Asteraceae which consist of species commonly known as dandelion that sprout yellow flowers. The leaf may also be confused with Cicoria (Cichorium Intybus) part of the dandelion family but with bright blue flowers.  Mamma grows both varieties in her garden.  In Italian, also known as dente di leone (lions tooth), soffione (dandelion puff), piscialetto (bed wetting - due to its diuretic effects), ingrassaporci (pig fattening - as it was also used as feed for pigs), or more commonly known as cicoria selvaggio and cicoria burda (wild chicory). According to research it has a long and ancient history associated with its cultivation that spans a few continents. Appreciated by many cultures, it was a native plant of Western Asia, North Africa and Europe, originally cultivated by medieval monks to extract a tonic for the treatment of gallstones.   It was classified as an age old herb that was used medicinally well before making its way on our dinner plates. 

Mamma uses it religiously and simply swears by its health benefits and still to this day informs us of its purifying and anti-inflammatory properties - 
rich in nutrients, minerals and anti-oxidants, and insists on the importance of including it in our diet.    According to her research, the dandelion leaves and root help purify the body; helps stimulate the bile, hepatic and renal function, activating the excretory organs (liver, kidney and skin) for the processing and elimination of toxins.  She uses the leaves in various recipes, drinks the water in which the greens are boiled in and uses the root in various brews.

Chicory has been known as a mainstay of the 'poor kitchen' – traditional Italian food that is simple to prepare, nutritious, tastes great and avoids waste. It was, and to a large extent remains a staple of the central and southern Italian table.  It is a standard cooked green commonly sold at mercati (markets) along with other wild greens all over Italy. In fact chicory has become a fashionable 'foodie' obsession available at well known restaurants and gourmet markets everywhere. It has a pleasing bitterness that can be removed by giving it a first boil before using it in a dish unless using the very young leaves. I love its bitterness and choose to just sauté with a small amount of oil, and by pass the boiling stage completely.  If you cannot find chicory at your local market, dandelions from your garden make a lovely substitute and as can be seen in the photos below, both varieties have been picked from mamma's garden and used in this dish.  The days not long ago when picking chicory was a source of embarrassment seems far behind me now and I am even considering giving up weeding and letting them grow in my garden. 

There are many delicious recipes using this wild bitter green, many of which I have eaten growing up, notably the Roman cicoria strascinata / ripassata (bitter greens with garlic and chilli).   There is also a nice complement to be had between a bitter green and a creamy subtle bean such as the white cannellini which works nicely with dandelion greens adding that extra flavour and nutrition.  Another favourite of mine is combining chicory with a mash of potatoes and turned into crocchette di patate e cicoria (potato and chicory crocchettes) - my recipe selection for our Cucina Conversations round table coming soon this month.  For this post I have chosen to share mamma's favourite way of eating cicoria which I am certain my grandparents ate during those leaner months of the year and that is in a dish called pane cotto. 

Il pane cotto or in papa`s dialect, pane cuott', would have to be the poorest dish in the south of Italy, born out of scarcity and whose closest cousin is the better known and richer in ingredients, Tuscan dish called 'pappa al pomodoro' (tomato & bread soup).  This dish however only uses four main ingredients - stale bread, chicory, garlic and olive oil. It can be prepared with any wild greens adding the bitter undertones that cut through the only rich ingredient - the olive oil that it is sautéd in. The wild greens can be substituted with silverbeet/chard, Tuscan kale or any other green that holds itself firm without becoming too mushy.  For those who want to enrich this dish, it has been known to make a hearty winter meal with the addition of beans and cooked in stock. In times of extreme poverty, this dish was hailed as the savior to hunger and ultimate death. As a famous southern Italian saying goes, 'Se non era pu' pane cuott', u'cafone foss' muort.' Translated in sweeter terms, 'if it wasn't for il pane cotto, the poor peasant would be dead'. 

Pane Cuott' - Pane Cotto con Cicoria 
Serves 2 as a main course


500 g greens  such as chicory, dandelion, silverbeet / chard or a mix of all 
2 garlic cloves
4 thick slices of stale ciabatta bread or pane di casa (home baked sourdough)
4 tblsp olive oil
1 cup of water or stock
1 small dried red peperoncino (chilli) or a pinch of dried chilli flakes

Remove the root and any discoloured leaves and discard. Wash well in cold water and drain.  In a pot of salted water that has been brought to the boil, add the greens and cook for a 5 minutes until tender.  This will also remove some of the bitterness if the leaves are older. Using a slotted spoon, lift the greens out of the water and drain.

You will need a large frying or sauté pan or even a wok will work well.  Peel and crush 2 cloves of garlic with the back of a knife.  Add 4 tablespoons of olive oil and sauté the cloves of garlic ensuring they do not burn while flavouring the oil, add some chilli flakes. Add the chicory that has been chopped in half, 1 cup of water or stock, a pinch of salt, the roughly chopped bread and allow it to cook for 5 minutes but don't overcook the bread. Remove from the heat and allow the bread to soak up all the liquid. The idea is to achieve a moist dish that isn't overcooked like pappa (baby food). Best served hot in a bowl with an extra drizzle of olive oil.  PS: I forgot to add the drizzle of olive oil before I took these photos. :)

Enjoy with a glass of red wine!

Stay tuned for this month’s Cucina Conversations posts on vegetarian and vegan dishes for the lean months of Quaresima (Lent).  I will cook again with cicoria and make my delicious crocchette di patate e cicoria (potato and chicory croquettes)

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Baccala con le Patate e Olive (Salt Cod with Potatoes & Olives)

As promised, here is the second baccala` (salt cod) dish for the Lent season.  In my previous post I shared with you a family recipe called Baccala con Peperoni Cruschi, a traditional recipe from the Basilicata region of Italy predominantly eaten during Lent or as some call it the leaner days leading up to Easter.  This additional salt cod recipe I share with you is a classic for this period of time as well and a family favourite due to the added potatoes and tomato sauce rendering the fish moist.   When mamma makes this dish she doesn't normally add the black sun dried olives, but I decided to include them not only to intensify the flavours of the baccala`, but also a great way to finish the meal with bread and olives.

Baccala con le Patate e Olive (Salt Cod with Potatoes & Olives)
Serves 4


700 g of salt cod already soaked in water for 3 days to remove the excess salt
150 g of cherry tomatoes
1 small brown onion
1 celery stalk
350 g (3 medium) desiree` or red skin potatoes 
salt to taste
1 cup black sun dried olives (prepared in advance by mamma) You can purchase these from your local delicatessen
½ cup white wine
½ cup water
4 tblsp olive oil

Preparing the salt cod fish:

In order for the salt cod to be totally desalinised, it requires to be soaked in a bowl of cold water for 2 to 3 days – changing the water every day.   Drain the water and pat dry the cod using a clean tea-towel and carefully remove the skin by peeling it off.  Cut into pieces of desired length.

Cooking the cod fish with potatoes & olives in a tomato based sauce:

Cut cherry tomatoes into quarters and place in a bowl. Chop onion and celery stick finely, and place in a saucepan or deep fry pan with 4 tblsp of olive oil. Sweat the onion on low heat until translucent and then add the tomatoes and season to taste.  Allow the tomatoes to cook down and add 1/2 cup of white wine and place lid on saucepan to simmer. Meanwhile peel potatoes and cut into 1cm thick rounds. Once the tomatoes have started to break down, add the potatoes and cod fish and stir through the sauce.  If the sauce has dried out too much, add 1/2 cup of water and stir through.  Place the lid on saucepan and allow to simmer on low heat until the potatoes have cooked through.  The cod fish will be cooked once the potatoes are tender. Add the olives and cook for a further 5 minutes with lid on to heat through and give flavour to the dish.

This dish is served as a main with crusty bread and garnished with chopped parsley. Enjoy!

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Cucina Conversations: Baccala` con Peperoni Cruschi (Salt Cod with Crispy Peppers)

I’ve always battled between choosing a sweet or savoury dish at the best of times, and even once I have selected to eat something sweet, my palate immediately craves for something salty afterwards.  So when we decided that this month’s topic for the Cucina Conversations round table was inevitably going to be Carnevale (annual carnival celebration in Italy) and all that it represents, my immediate recipe selection was sweets of course.  Well, after 'toing and froing', the decision was made for me by my taste buds - a savoury dish.  I must admit though that throughout this carnivalesque period I have been frying and indulging in sweets like the light and crispy chiacchiere  that are a family favourite, recipe testing chiacchere ripiene  with jam, and of course the addictive castagnole di carnevale that I grew up eating and loving. 

While deciding on a recipe and researching the topic of Carnevale, I was drawn by Pieter Brueghel’s masterpiece titled: La Lotta tra Carnevale e Quaresima  (The Fight between Carnival and Lent) and thought how typical this painting was in my current state of mind or in this case ‘taste buds’.   To some degree the symbolism of the two scenes captured my thoughts and beliefs around the notion of Carnevale growing up.  The painting illustrates the two sides of human nature: pleasure and the spirit of excess and enjoyment of all sorts juxtaposed with a more moderate lifestyle of fasting and virtuous abstinence in keeping with the Catholic religion.  Growing up in Australia far away from my birth country and its traditions, I don’t ever recall celebrating Carnevale as they do in Italy, but recall those Church-imposed ‘lean days’.

What I have learnt is that Carnevale has connections with the inheritance of pagan practices from ancient Greece and Rome, and even earlier in time where primitive celebrations honoured the coming of spring.   Later when Christianity took over from a spiritual point of view, Carnevale became a period of transition – not only between the two seasons, but also representing one last moment of indulgence before the penitence of Lent, which leads to the celebrations of Easter.   The theory behind the name considered more realistic by the majority of experts is that the term ‘Carnevale’ originated from another Latin expression, carnem levare, meaning taking away meat which over time became carne vale (goodbye, meat). This became associated with Ash Wednesday – the day when Lent began and people stopped eating meat replacing it with fish during this period of time.

My fellow bloggers will share with you some regional Carnevale recipes that are typical of this period - some sweet and others savoury.   I on the other hand, will focus on a simple and moderate dish that moves us out of the Carnevale season after having indulged for the whole month. My recipe choice for this month is baccala fritto con peperoni cruschi (salt cod fish with sun dried peppers) cooked in a traditional way from the Basilicata region of Italy where my parents are from.

Basilicata is a hilly and mountainous region in the south of Italy,  bordering on Campania  to the west, Apulia (Puglia) to the north and east, and Calabria to the south. It also has two coastlines, one on the Tyrrhenian Sea between Campania and Calabria, and a longer coastline along the Gulf of Taranto  between Calabria and Apulia. The region is divided into two provinces, Potenza  (being the capital) and Matera This region is rich in history and agriculture but much of its cuisine is simple and very much influenced by its geographic location and ancient traditions. 

Carnevale in Basilicata is inaugurated by the rhythmic and hypnotic sound of bells to coincide with the feast of Saint Anthony, January 17.  I previously wrote about Carnevale in this region, with the recount of my mother’s small town of Montemurro, coinciding with the ‘pig festa’ and that rich sanguinacchio desert that is very typical of the south.  In this region during Carnevale, it is traditional to eat cavatelli or orecchiette (home-made pasta types) with a tomato sauce made with salsicce (sausages) or la cotica (pork skin).  Lard also replaces olive oil in the cooking, rendering it rich and fatty. 

Remember the left hand side of that above mentioned painting?  In the foreground there is a large figure of a man riding a beer barrel with a pork chop attached to its front end and he's wielding a long spit complete with a pig’s head representing (eating fat) ready to do battle with Lady Lent’s wagon containing fish, representing (eating lean) – such is allegory and symbolism in art!  Well anyway, I’m on Lady Lent’s side with this dish. 

Il baccala` with a garnish of crisp peppers and olives is a simple traditional recipe and one that is very representative of the Basilicata region, perfect to be prepared for the last day of Carnevale and leading into the leaner months ahead.  It’s a very tasty preparation characterized by the contrast between the crisp sweet garnish of the sun-dried Senise peppers – a typical product of a small village called Senise located in the province of Potenza, and the soft and savoury cod fish.  For the peperoni cruschi, you will need sun-dried sweet Italian peppers.  I used the bull horn variety that my parents grow and have dried themselves.  If you are looking to buy already dried peppers, let me dissuade you as they are so easy to dry yourself and far tastier.  Simply follow a YouTube clip.  

Baccala Fritto con Peperoni Cruschi (Salt Cod with Crispy Peppers)
This is papa’s recipe that I have adapted by adding mamma’s black sun dried olives.  
NB: Papa` would ensure that one of the peppers used is hot.  Alternatively he would add a small chilli when frying the peppers.  Serves 4

700 g of salt cod already soaked in water for 3 days to remove the excess salt
300 g of sun-dried peppers 
½ cup olive oil for shallow frying (add more if /when needed)
1 spicy chilli (optional)
salt to taste
all-purpose flour to dust cod

1 cup black sun dried olives (prepared in advance by mamma) You can purchase these from your local delicatessen.

Preparing the salt cod fish:

In order for the salt cod to be totally desalinised, it requires to be soaked in a bowl of cold water for 2 to 3 days – changing the water every day.   Drain the water and pat dry the cod using a clean tea-towel and carefully remove the skin by peeling it off.  Cut into pieces of desired length and dust with flour ensuring all pieces are coated all over.

Preparing the peperoni cruschi & frying the cod fish:

To make the sweet and smoky flavoured peperoni cruschi, you need to first remove the seeds and stems from the dried peppers and cut in half length ways. Place the cut peppers with half a cup of olive oil in a fry pan.  Toss to coat with the olive oil and place the pan over medium heat.  Keep stirring them with a fork as the oil in the pan warms up.  As soon as they puff up and become crispy you should remove them from the heat; be careful not to burn them.  Add a sprinkle of salt and move onto frying the olives in the same oil until warmed.  Remove them from the pan and fry the cod fish in the same infused olive oil until golden on all sides. Transfer to a plate lined with paper towels to remove the excess oil.  Plate all 3 cooked ingredients and garnish with some crushed peppers. Serve with some crusty bread.  

This is a typical lean dish from the Basilicata region classified as cucina povera (humble cuisine), but the locals along with my father would argue that it's fit for a king!  I have a few other family recipes using baccala` as the main ingredient that I will be adding to my recipe list soon, so stay tuned. 

Meanwhile remember to also read more about the Carnevale traditions around Italy via my fellow bloggers Cucina Conversations posts.  Their recipes include:

Fagioli Grassi  at turinmamma
Polpette di Carne at marmellatadicipolle
Crostoli di Nutella at italiankiwilisa
Fritole Veneziane at flavias_flavors
Castagnole di Ricotta at pancakesandbiscotti
Bomboloni at la_danigourmet