Naff can be Nice – Saffron Rice and Scallops

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I don’t know how you, dear Reader, personally interpret the slang word ‘naff’ but the British-English speaking can easily agree that it has to do with all things ‘uncool’, no longer or ever fashionable, on the tacky side and generally to be avoided.  Akin to kitsch in many ways.

There I was, having to rustle up an impromptu dinner which perforce had to partly rely on frozen goods because this is the time of year that many shops, including grocery shops, close down for a holiday in Italy.  (And why not?  Everyone has a right to a holiday.)  It was almost closing time when I managed to find a butcher’s where I bought some chicken … and I did have potatoes at home … but had to resort to buying frozen peas as veg.  How mortifying.  My last-minute guests that evening were two beautiful young ladies visiting from Hungary, my daughter’s friend Aniko and her friend Micol.  Aniko is a great fan of my table and I didn’t want to disappoint.

In all fairness, I had had a full-on very busy day and given only two hours’ notice.  Even so, it is August in Italy and I am serving what sounds suspiciously like Wintry fare: chicken, pan-roasted potatoes and frozen peas … Oh woe is me, nothing fresh, nothing seasonal!, what an ignominy.  I looked to the freezer for succour and the scallops were all I could find.  Sigh. It’s not the thing, you see, to serve fish and meat at the same meal in Italy.  It doesn’t really ‘work’ culinarily speaking.  And so I resorted to concocting the scallops into a first course, into a risotto of sorts.  And this post is the result.  Saffron rice served inside a scallop shell with the pan fried scallop on top and chives to garnish.  Ahem.  Very 1970s. Naff or what?

Still … it tasted quite nice actually and I might make it again (with a little more care, and cooking the rice in fish stock).  All is well that ends well and we even christened this recipe: Rice and Scallops à la Aniko!

2 I boiled some Carnaroli rice in salted hot water, to which I had added some safforn.  I let it simmer until it was cooked.  Not al dente.  Just cooked.3 I drained the rice.4 I added some butter.5 I mixed the butter into the hot rice and then sprinkled some freshly grated parmesan cheese and white pepper.6 A little bit of freshly grated lemon zest and voilà … the rice is ready.  Set aside.7 I separated the scallops from their shells and poured olive oil into a frying pan.8 When the oil was nice and hot, I added the scallops … leaving as much room between them as I could.  Do not overcrowd.9 I turned them over once and removed them with a slotted spoon.  Scallops take no time to cook … one minute each side, sort of thing.10 I poured some of the cooking oil into the rice because it had acquired some of the scallops’ taste.11Aniko and Micol helped me to scoop some rice and place it on the shells.  We topped it with a scallop and finished it off with chives.
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Rice and Scallops à la Aniko – when naff can be nice!

And that’s not all!  In keeping with my “Loving the Leftovers” philosophy, I used the rest of the rice to make “riso al salto” – a rice pancake.

13 Spread the rice over a non-stick frying pan and switch on the heat (this rice had plenty of butter and olive oil in it so I didn’t add any to the pan).14 Let it cook for a few minutes as one would an omelette.  Then flip the rice over on to the other side and cook a little more.  It develops a nice crust.15

It may not look like much … but I promise you, this rice pancake is deeply delicious and a great accompaniment to any casual meal.

 

Posted in Basic Techniques, Fish and seafood, Herbs and plants, Loving the Leftovers | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Montalbano Land and “Enzo a Mare”

During the Autumn of 2002, I signed up for a course of cooking classes that were held on a Tuesday evening and happened to coincide with the TV showing of the popular Inspector Montalbano series.  I took a look just now and apparently it was already in its Fourth Edition by then –  but that was the first I had ever heard of the TV series and of course missed it all.  Shame on me for never having read Camilleri’s books on which the series was based.  I was grateful it was showing, however, because my husband and two children seemed to enjoy it a lot and didn’t mind my absence (I hasten to add that I always cooked dinner for them before going).  Years later, I got to view and enjoy some of these episodes myself on DVD … and now, somehow, they hold a special symbolic meaning for me, reminding me of a very happy, energetic and lighthearted phase in our nuclear family’s life.

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More recently, just last month in fact, an extended-family holiday in Sicily saw us residing within driving distance of Punta Secca, in the province of Ragusa.  Our daughter who is a great fan of the Montalbano series said that there was no way she was going to give  ‘Marinella’ a miss.  Punta Secca is the real name for the fictional Marinella, the small town with Montalbano’s house and large terrace overlooking the sea.  The town with the big white lighthouse.  Our daughter got quite excited at the prospect of seeing them ‘in real life’.  I am apt to turn up my nose at touristy tours that rely on indulging the voyeur in us but this time I was game. And besides, I just love the sea.

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And I also love me a long hot summer … it makes swimming all the more enjoyable.  This year the Italian summer has been more like monsoon downpour territory and unseasonably cold to boot.  What is the point of a wet, cold Italian summer?  We were fortunately spared the worst down in Sicily but it wasn’t exactly hot … the temperature on average being in the region of 28°C.  Picture my joy then as the day we chose to visit Punta Secca was gloriously sunny and even, almost, ‘hot’ (i.e. over 30°C) ! Clear blue skies! Bliss.

3This is the bay where Montalbano likes to take a swim.4 Nothing trendy about it.  Here I am, taking a shot veering to the right of the bay.5And here am I, looking to the left of the bay.  And there in the distance … is ‘the’ terrace that so entrances Inspector Montalbano and his viewers, sporting a white beach umbrella. If you enjoy a spot of visual play, you will notice that the beach umbrella looks a bit like a ‘moustache’, set against the grey building whose windows look like ‘eyes’ !6 A closer shot of the terrace – or is it a balcony? never mind.  A man sitting there under the beach umbrella.  Wonder who he is …7 Beyond the balcony and in the distance is the … white lighthouse.  ‘The’ lighthouse that appears at the programme’s signature trailer at the beginning of each episode:

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9 M0re views of Montalbano’s house.10 I can’t explain it but the atmosphere was just so energising and restful at the same time.   There was direct synergy at work between the physical and the emotional.  The intensity of the blue of the sky and two-tones of the sea were mesmerising.  The air too tasted of ‘salt’ … iodine. On days such as these, you feel you want to live forever. 11 It was coming up to lunch time and I was already looking forward to having a swim afterwards …12 13 And then … just beyond the lighthouse ….14 What should we espy in the distance but ‘the’ beach-hut restaurant where Montalbano likes to eat!15 Enzo a Mare!16 17 Is that a sight for sore eyes or what?18 19 We were just all so relaxed and happy and looking forward to our lunch … Normally I snap photos left, right and centre of the food being served but this time, somehow, I was so ‘in the now’ that I didn’t !

Which is a shame because it was all delicious.  I ordered a plate of linguine with a swordfish ragout sauce.  I am not a great lover of swordfish but I thought I would be adventurous and try something new.  I am so glad I did … it was possibly the best dish I ate throughout our whole week’s stay in Sicily.

Everthing about Enzo a Mare is great … even the lamps made out of baskets!

21 22 And here is Nuniza, the chef.  I asked her for the recipe and if memory serves me well it goes something like this.

Pan fry a little garlic in some olive oil, to which you must also add: a small amount of lemon zest, salt-dried capers, olives and fresh mint leaves.  Add the swordfish, diced.  Cook for the briefest of time (1 minute say) and then splash a little balsamic vinegar in the mix. Turn up the heat and toss the pan.  Add tomato sauce and cook for about 10 minutes.  When serving the linguine sprinkle some Sicilian oregano around the rim of the dish.  Truly more-ish!

20We said arrivederci to this corner of paradise and went to lie down on the sand … Some time later I ventured back to Montalbano’s bay and waded in as far as my thighs.  The water was freezing and I was too much of a wuss to manage to dive in, as I would have liked, and enjoy a swim à la Montalbano.  Ah well … next time.


24 On our way back to the car, later in the evening, I espied this lady reading decorously on her terrace within spitting distance of Montalbano’s house.  I was very much intrigued by her … and by her flowers on the terrace and the greenery climbing all over the facade of her house.25Another lady of ‘a certain age’ and beautifully dressed walked up to the front door and rang the bell.  The lady who was reading heard it and got up and peeped over the rails of the terrace.  Her face broke into a lovely smile as she recognised her friend.  “Ciao cara,” she said.  She beckoned for her to come up, to join her.  “Passa di qua,” she told her.  And her friend made her way into the house not by the front door, no, but by a large open French window (or whatever these things are called) on the ground floor.  I felt as if I were trespassing so I didn’t take any photos.  It was an amazing vignette of Sicilian life to ‘catch’ … so pleasant, so unhurried, so civilised.  I wonder who these lovely ladies are …

Punta Secca (Santa Croce Camerina) and Enzo a Mare.  Good company, glorious food, the sea … what more could I have asked for?

Posted in Fish and seafood, Places to eat, Primi (first courses - usually a pasta or risotto), Travel and Tales | Tagged , , , , | 14 Comments

Two Galleries and The Artist: Lorcan O’Neill Gallery and Mat Collishaw in Rome

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There is food for eating and there is food for thought.  This is a shot of Via de’ Catinari, Rome, and, despite what their body language might impress, these people were actually hanging about and taking part in an ‘event’ — they weren’t being bored.

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I had decided to attend the opening of an art gallery, as recommended to me by a close friend and former colleague of the gallerist in question, Lorcan O’Neill.  Here is another shot of Via de’ Catinari.  I love the little girl at the fountain.

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It was a beautiful hot evening early in July (July 4th if you want to know), the kind that is infused with the promise of a long, hot indolent summer to ensue and to last seemingly forever;  the kind that whispers, who knows? I might even overflow into an Indian summer.   I was, in short, happily engulfed by the type of heat that was subsequently and extremely noticeably denied to us, in what turned out to be the most miserable of Roman July’s in decades (I had to resort to wearing a cardigan last night, that’s how bad this meterological effrontery has been).

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I like museums and art galleries and did not mind having to go on my own.  I had read  that the inaugural show was to comprise work by Canadian photographer Jeff Wall; British Land artist, sculptor, and photographer Richard Long; and Italian painter Enrico Castellani, all of whom the gallery represents.

http://www.architecturaldigest.com/blogs/daily/2014/06/lorcan-oneill-gallery-rome

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I had also read, in another article, that this new gallery is ‘meant to function as an “arts hub” in a city not yet known for its vibrant art market but which is hoping to build a place for itself in Italy and indeed Europe as a center for contemporary art. Others have opened new spaces in Rome recently: Gagosian opened a gallery here, and, after Milan, Rome is one of Italy’s few expanding center’s for contemporary art galleries. The energy is also attracting younger dealers. Not yet 30, the Glaswegian James Gardner has received much praised for his gallery Frutta, which is focusing on up-and-coming artists such as Gabriele De Santis and Oliver Osborne.’

http://news.artnet.com/in-brief/lorcan-o-neill-opens-new-gallery-in-17th-century-roman-palazzo-12409

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My hands were just ‘itching’ to get a feel of the marble … but I managed to behave and take photos instead.   It is not often that a ground-level ‘object’ can incur such desire for tactile satisfaction.

7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 Cool.  Very cool.  I was really enjoying the venue, the exhibits and … of course! … the hub and the people.15 People watching.  We all do it …

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A fountain.  And what a fountain … how old is it?  What does it have to say to us, even today?  Do you notice Hercules or is it Atlas … holding up a lot of weight?  Do you notice the symbol of the shell?  The ‘angels’ playing with the two fish?18 And this is when things got ‘interesting’.  When Fellini would have been all agog … Who is the lady in red?19 The lady in red likes being photographed.  She doesn’t mind posing in front of the fountain … she positively loves it.20 And here is the photographer … taking snaps of the lady in red.21 Smile.  Cheese.  The lady in red is seemingly oblivious to any of us looking on and wondering what this posing is all about …22 She consults her photographer and takes it all very seriously …23 These other people … mostly women …. are a sharp contrast.  Their smiles may  be somewhat formal but their attitude is one of fun.  Their shoes say it all ….

And then, only yards away and literally around the corner from Lorcan’s new Gallery, not far from Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori, I stumbled across a second art gallery featuring Mat Collishaw’s works.   ‘Golly!’ I thought to myself, ‘ What IS it with Rome and modern art at the moment?’  How nice, nevertheless.

http://www.britishcouncil.it/en/events/we-suggest-exhibition-mat-collishaw-18unosunove

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And here is Mat Collishaw himself, although I did not know it at the time.  I was intrigued by the prison-gear look of his trendy outfit.  And then I went inside the 1/9unosunove Gallery to admire his work.

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For the exhibition at 1/9unosunove, Mat Collishaw has selected a group of artworks among three of his most widely known series: Burning Flowers, Insecticide and Last Meal on Death Row.  The fiery red made me think of Diana Vreeland’s love for this shade, ‘the red from hell’ as she termed it.

303233This work made me think of Pompei.  And the one below of A.S. Byatt’s ‘Angels and Insects’.31Impressive, very impressive indeed.

For some reason, I felt compelled to return to the Lorcan Gallery …
25 The crowds throng.  Wine is served on the street outside the gallery  … as are simple snacks.  If this were London, we’d be talking about champagne and finger foods.  Accents and background and pedigree would form a barrier.  Here, instead, it is bicycles that form a natural ‘barrier’ … lending a pseudo-industrial ‘edge’ to the event.  The fountain on the right spews out drinkable and very cold water.  This is Rome.  The Centre of Rome.  Near Campo de’ Fiori.  Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake not very far from here.  He was one of the last alchemists.  What alchemy is at work here this evening?

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The atmosphere is warm and friendly.  Some people dress up.  Others wear a backpack.

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It was getting very busy now.  Lots of people, lots.  The sheer number of people was adding to the heat, despite the fact that the evening light was dimming.  The lady with the hat on the left somehow managed to keep her cool.

36 Back inside …

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37Back outside.  Candes being lit on the roof tops ….38

Museums and art galleries represent the height of civilisation. People are huddled up at close quarters and yet manage to remain self-contained and keep their grip, their ‘cool’.  People come to see and to be seen.

39And this lady on the left … well, she definitely wanted to be seen.  It’s easy enough to be tempted to criticise her attention-seeking ‘gear’.  But then again … a little eccentricity never hurt and prompt and reminds us, as adults, that we were children once.  And liked dressing up and pretending and having fun.  I can’t say her silver-and-black fabric ‘did’ it for me, not to mention the hideous hat … but I admired her sense of style.

I went away as much fascinated by the people on exhibition as the exhibits themselves.  A truly groovy evening.  Art for art’s sake.  Only in Rome …

 

Posted in Travel and Tales, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Ring of Emperor Rice, Courgettes and King Prawns

I wish there were a verb to define the act of cooking as an enjoyable and absorbing activity as opposed to one that is all about putting some food on the table in as little time as possible.  The latter has been my lot for much of the last few months and whilst it has served the family’s nutritional survival needs most adequately, it cannot be said to have accrued any satisfaction for yours truly.  It doesn’t feel like ‘cooking’, you see, it feels much more like ‘skivvying’.  It is an irony unacknolwedged that ‘cooking-for-delight’ should take a lot more time and concentration, not to mention energy, than does mere ‘cooking-to-eat’ and yet deliver oodles more pleasure and satisfaction.  There must be some universal law of nutritional thermodynamics that is able to explain away this conundrum but none comes to mind.  All I know is that if I do not ‘cook-for-delight’ for too long a time, I not only slacken my cooking skills, I also become somewhat irritable.  So … who knows … perhaps for people such as me, cooking is a form of zen, a kind of meditative practice.

Such were my thoughts as I ambled about Grottaferrata market the other day and bought some fish and vegetables at random, indulging my desire to go in for a spot of much awaited ‘cooking-for-delight’.

1 Anchovies, king prawns (from Malta), samphire and venus clams (vongole).2 Proper summertime local tomatoes, onions from Tropea, courgettes and oranges … At home, I had some emperor rice (riso venere) in the store cupboard.  I also had lemons, dried oregano, salted capers and yummy olive oil.

My sister Jackie who is visiting with her family came to cook with me, and it was just so gratifying to be able to chat and cook without any sense of rush or stress to spoil things. We proceeded to peel and de-vein the king prawns.

3 4 We made a quick bisque with the prawn shells.5 I removed the shells after about 20 minutes and here is Jackie pouring in the emperor rice into the bisque to which we had added a good pinch of salt.6 I stuck a toothpick inside each prawn, to keep them from curling while cooking.7 Olive oil, garlic, parsely and a little bit of chilli.  Heat …8 Add the king prawns and sauté for a few minutes.  Sprinkle some salt.9 Set aside.10 This is a ring cake tin, used in Italy to make “ciambellone” cake.  Jackie rubbed butter all around the inside.  We drained the rice once it was cooked (see the instructions on the packet – about 25 minutes I seem to remember … I wasn’t really paying attention, to be honest, Jackie and I were deep in conversation and every now and then we grabbed a spoon and tasted the rice to ascertain its ‘done-ness’).  We patted it down with a wooden spoon.  Jackie had suggested a potato masher but I couldn’t find mine just then and we made do with the wooden spoon.

In the meantime, Jackie had diced the courgettes and we sautéed them in the same saucepan as the king prawns.

11 We placed the courgettes on top of the rice.  We set the cake tin aside until it had cooled completely and then put it in the fridge.  An hour before dinner, we removed it from the fridge.

12I got hold of the largest round plate I possess. 13I placed the plate on top of the cake tin, and then flipped it over.  Quite a feat and no mess on the floor.  Hurrah!
14 And here is the ring of rice, supported by a mattress of courgettes.15 Out came the prawns to adorn …

16And, for a final flourish, a scattering of samphire for extra taste as well as chromatic detail.

Nice, eh?
17We also prepared a seafood salad that rested on slices of oranges … seasoned with salt and pepper, the inevitable evoo, dried oregano, capers and strands of samphire.

I had also cleaned the anchovies and fried them in parsely-filled batter, presenting them with just a sprinkle of salt (no lemon).  Last, there was a potato and tomato salad, with rings of Tropea onion, capers, olives, seasoned with evoo and white wine vinegar (not balsamic) and a scattering of dried oregano.
18 Here we are … about to start the meal … with spaghetti alle vongole.  The clatter of plates as the food is dished out and/or passed around, the sound of a loved one washing their hands just before sitting at the table, the popping of a cork out of a wine bottle, cold water in a jug already on the table.  “Come on everyone, it’s ready!”, the clarion call that everyone will heed in their own good time.  And then, as if on magical cue, everyone DOES sit down and tuck in.  And mastication begins and atavistic nasal voices of Mmmms expressing pleasure ensue.19I am reminded of Billie Holiday’s “Ooo what a little moonlight can do”.  That’s what cooking for delight can and does do ….

 

 

Posted in Antipasti, Basic Techniques, Fish and seafood, Herbs and plants, italian home food | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

The Chianina Shop at Lastra a Signa

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Fellow food blogger, Stefan (Stefangourmet.wordpress.com), who lives in Holland, wrote the following comment à propos of my post on the Chianina steak: “The steak looks great! I did a post on Fiorentina in January, but couldn’t get any Chianina back then. I recently saw it available online, so I guess I should try it. It was still pretty great with regular beef. When I do get the Chianina, I may try something sacriligeous and cook it sous-vide before searing on a very hot grill“.  

I don’t want to bore readers with too many Chianina related facts and figures but I did think it interesting that it can be shipped in vacuum-packed parcels, not just within Italy but also within Europe.  I found this out when we went expressly to buy some Chianina for Liz to take home and cook for her husband and family that night (the rest of us were staying on for another day). Liz is an expert wiz with her mobile phone and carried out a search on where to source good Chianina in record time, and in keeping with our timetable of activities for that morning (people might think that all I do is gallavant and gad about all day but, actually, were were in Tuscany on business – it’s just that we make it our business to render our business as enjoyable as possible, and that included seeing a very interesting exhibition on the mannerist artists Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino at the Palazzo Strozzi museum (www.youtube.com/watch?v=HmIsCR2dLaQ).

Anyway, Liz’s search led her to the town of Lastra a Signa and the Butcher Bacci (this last sentence sounds like a tongue twister).  This is a family business that goes back all the way to 1890.

Here is the link to their websitewebsite: www.macelleriabacci.it.

2 It is not a particularly large butchers but it stands proudly, with its show of signposts and red banners.3 4 Antler alert … up there on the wall on the right. I liked the “old-fashioned” feel of the shop and the many other products for sale besides the meat.5More antlers on the wall … as well as old, framed photographs.6 7 Bacci sells all kinds of meat, and not just Chianina steaks.7a 8 IGP stands for “Indicazione Geografica Protetta” and this means that a certain food or drink has been awarded certification, a special status, on account of its provenance.  An IGP Chianina steak MUST come from a designated area/place, and not just from the Chianina breed.  In this case, we are talking about the “Vitellone Bianco Appennino Centrale” – the central mountain ridge in Tuscany.

9I mistook this gentleman as the owner of the shop.  He went about his duty with ease and deliberation, and was quite happy to answer some of our questions.  This cut had been aged for 28 days.
10 I mean — just look at the colour of this meat!
12 13 14 And then the owner, Mr Alberto Bacci, came from out-of-the-blue, a very likeable man who enjoyed talking with us, expertly getting on with his work all the while.  This is what I like about shops and dislike in equal measure about supermarkets — no enjoyment of conversation.  No personal touch.15 16Liz bought some chicken livers too and Alberto gave her the recipe, which included sage leaves.
18 Alberto insisted we taste some of his prosciutto … and jolly good it was too.19 I just fell in love with these pasta shapes that the Bacci have had especially made for them. These are the pasta shapes that go with a meat-based stock (“il brodo”).  So first on the left we have the “stortini” – meaning “bent-shaped”.  Then we have “campanellini” – little bells.  And on the right “occhi di Lupo” – the eyes of a woolf! 20 Quadrucci (little squares) and Grandinina (little hail).21Liz bought and her plastic bag with her booty: Chianina steaks and plenty of chicken liver.  A very satisfied customer — and a soon-to-be-made very happy family that evening.

P.S.  Try as I could, I was unable to remove those “smileys” from the post … I don’t know how they got there in the first place!

Posted in italian home food, Secondi (main course, usually meat based), Travel and Tales, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

La Fiorentina – Not Just Any Old Steak

1 As the late and much-mourned Kyle Phillips wrote: “Many in the English-speaking world would call this a Porterhouse and wonder what the fuss is about. And they’d be right in most cases; though Bistecca alla Fiorentina, Florentine-Style Steak, is featured prominently on the menus of almost all the restaurants in Florence, finding a good one isn’t at all easy. But when you do it’s heaven on earth, delightfully rich, flavorful rare meat so tender it can be cut with a spoon. Much of the secret is the breed of cattle, the Chianina beef.” (italianfood.about.com/od/beefbracioleetc/r/blr0568.htm). The story goes back to the Medici times, in July, and the feast of Saint Lawrence (who is himself the patron saint of cooks, remember …?myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2011/05/03/lorenzo-and-the-silver-lining).  It became the custom on this feast day for Florence to come alive with lots of bonfires and grilled street food.  Some English travellers happened to be there and called this cut of meat a “beef steak” and it got translated into Italian as “bistecca”.  The vital statistics of  a “Bistecca alla Fiorentina” are as follows. It is a porterhouse steak or T-bone steak.  Big – must weight at least 1kg.  The beef must be that of the Chianina breed.  It must be at room temperature (if it was in the fridge, remove at least 4 hours before serving). It can only be cooked over a very hot grill.  And it must be cooked so that the heart of the steak is basically raw.  Towards the end, the steak must be cooked on the bone so that the heat can permeate through there as well.  Once cooked, the bistecca must rest for about 10 minutes, and then be served on a large platter together with the bone; both the fillet and the contre-fillet on either side of the bones are then sliced.  Purists will eat it as is … or with maybe a touch of olive oil … and eschew lemon altogether. Anyway … our group of Tuscan travellers decided we would cook ourselves a Fiorentina.  We were close enough to Grevi and its Saturday market and that’s where we went to find it. 2 3 We went to Falorni’s the butcher … (www.falorni.it).4 5 This was our cut of meat …6 You can buy the bistecche vacuum-packed.7 And this amazing shop also sells wine.  Naturally … Liz, Libby and Sandy got to work choosing.  I decided to head for home with the boys and get lunch ready. lunch Lunch was a case of a luxury picnic lunch.  In terms of flavours.  We had bought some rotisserie-style chicken (“pollo allo spiedo”) and we also had not-a-few leftovers from the day before by way of cheeses, cured meats and veggies.  As the long hot afternoon started to turn into a beautiful late afternoon …8 I called upon Liz to make a cocktail.  The day before she had come up with a perfect Bloody Mary.9 Today, she made some sugar syrup and came up with a Martini Sour.   There was an air of anticipation and excitement and Jack, our bistecca griller, was getting visibly anxious by the minute.  Expert griller that he is, he wanted everything to be just right for our Chianina steaks. 11 Come sundown … 10He got started.12 Because I had been on lunch duty … I basically just looked on while many hands made light work.  Libby was preparing a tomato casserole … here she was using the one sharp knife we had in the house, bravely chopping some garlic.13 The garlic went into this dish, together with olive oil and seasoning and then into the oven. It is amazing how such simple ingredients can deliver so much taste! 14 The asparagus was wrapped in prosciutto … 15 Liz boiled some new potatoes … then drained them … then smashed them up a bit … and finally deep fried them.  I could kick myself for not having a good shot of her potatoes! They were simply stunning!  (She told me she got the recipe from: food52.com/recipes/25113-wonder-fries.)  She also prepared a sauce, made up of mustard and butter basically, to accompany the steaks.16When the fire was ready … 17 I used some kitchen paper to mop them on both sides.  That was my contribution to the evening meal, basically.  Some herb mix was added to one steak … the rest was left “nature”.18 Here is Jack … counting the minutes.  The butcher said to cook them for about 6 minutes on either side.19 20 Then we got into a discussion as to how rare we wanted them to be.  I suggested that 20 minutes in all would be better. 21 A rising full moon is just the thing for conversation and philosophysing as you drink some wine and await the dinner.  When the steaks were au point, we lay them on a platter and covered them in a tent made of aluminium foil.  We let them “rest” for at least 15 minutes. 22 24Time enough to grill the asparagus and onions. 25 Ooooh !  Look at that! 26 And here is Liz now, slicing away with the one sharp little knife we had available.  (It was so sharp that I had cut my thumb the day before and it was all I could do to staunch the blood … oh the drama!). We had added salt and pepper before cutting the steaks. 28 And were they good?  What do YOU think?  29Good enough to finish eating like this! That’s my husband’s hand patting Liz’s back as she goes through a gastronomic Stendal moment!

P.S.  Here is a link to Kyle Phillip’s instructions on how to cook a Fiorentina: http://italianfood.about.com/od/tipstricks1/ss/aa012706.htm And another link from Emiko Davies: http://www.emikodavies.com/blog/the-perfect-bistecca-fiorentina/

Posted in Basic Techniques, Contorni and/or side dishes, Herbs and plants, italian home food, Secondi (main course, usually meat based), Shops and Stores, Travel and Tales | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Fishy Guests and Food-Laden Friends

I think we have all heard of the Spanish greeting “mi casa es su casa”.  In Arabic there is an exact same proverb which goes something like this: bye-tee bye-too-keh (my house is your house).  And in English we have the all-encompassing “Make yourself at home” to mean something similar.  Why then does the old Italian adage liken house guests to the ichthyological species with its “Guests are like fish — after three days they smell”?   There is more than one way of looking at this statement but it does rather put the house guests in a bad light, whichever stance you opt for.  What was the reason for such Italian surliness? Was it an outright lack in social graces and hospitality …. or?

The way I understand it, travelling was a slow and arduous task before trains, motorways and aeroplanes oiled the ways of geographical meandering.   Visits from friends and family might not have been so frequent and thus would have been truly cherished.  This would have meant going out of one’s way and bending over backwards to make the honoured guest’s stay as enjoyable as possible.  The guest would need to be pampered and slaved over and served only the very best.      I think that it was a hostess’s duty (let’s face it, it was always the women who had to work the hardest) to make sure all the stops were pulled and that the family, as a whole, made a good impression on the guest(s).  All this to say … it would have been bloody hard work! Work that the hostess wouldn’t have minded undertaking if it were for people she loved – but imagine if the guests in question were of the formidable kind! Yikes!  Think Jane Austen.  Think nasty mother-in-laws! Think of all the cleaning and preparation even before the guest arrived, then the non-stop entertainment and looking after the guest in every possible way.  It would have been all rather intense.  And three days would most certainly have been the healthy limit.

This is not a proverb I grew up with, although I certainly heard of it.  It applied more, I think, to an older generation that had to respect social markers and behaviour very strictly, with little or no room for casualness.  For us, instead, guests were welcome and fun!  And that was also because guests would be expected to fall in with the family’s commitments and lifestyle, and not be treated like royalty.  Things got a lot more casual after the 1950s and routines could be stretched to make a guest’s visit enjoyable for all concerned, much more relaxing in terms of expectations.

When a few months ago, I looked at the calendar and realised that we would be having various friends to stay, non-stop, from May 3rd to June 2nd, I drew the conclusion, and not for the first time, that I might have missed my calling for the hospitality industry.  I’ll be the first to admit I get my knickers in a twist just before a guest is scheduled to arrive, lots of things need to be planned and implemented and there is also the extra physical work.  But then … isn’t that true of any valuable and pleasurable human endeavour?  Even making love can take it out of you …

I love having friends to stay because … well … I have NICE friends, you see, who seem to like the same things I do, and that includes eating and drinking.  They bring good cheer and stories and excitement.  They ‘force’ me out of my routine when they stay with us and I get to do a bit of sight-seeing too.  My to-do list does pile up but … in the end … I always seem to catch up after they leave.  Having to look after guests means having to live in the near-and-now, and taking time to smell the roses and enjoy the moment.  It is also thoroughly exhausting because more energy is required of us.  It is sad when they leave.   It is comforting to make a mental note of the many more memories added to a life album of shared experiences.

Anyway … all this to say that my friends don’t smell like fish at all.  They actually BRING fish!  Take a look at what friends from British Columbia (Canada) brought over with them a few weeks ago: 2 Pristine, gorgeous Pacific prawns.  We boiled them briefly and delved into a bit of 1970s nostalgia, preparing home-made mayonnaise to which we added tabasco, tomato ketchup and a little bit of brandy.  I have the book “The Prawn Cocktail Years” by Simon Hopkinson and Lindsey Bareham, you know !  Nothing like gastronomic time travelling now and then! 1They also brought Pacific wild caught salmon.  Call me a spoilt so-and-so but that’s all I will touch these days (even if it means I only get to eat it once a year).  4 And my friend poached it in the oven, and served it with a dill yogurt and mustard sauce. (oh, and you can’t get dill around my parts so she had to bring that over too!).  Simply divine.8 And then, one evening some time later … we were in Tuscany.  And another friend joined us, this time from Boston.  9 And look what she brought us!  Lobster …! only it was cooked and not ‘live’ as it said on the special travel box it was packed in. 11 Just look at these lobster tail beauties!12 Flowers on the kitchen table …13 Lobster salad being prepared to start with …14 (2) 15 Lobster pasta to follow ….!16And there was still another tub of lobster left over.

lobster avocado salad

We had that with an avocado salad the following day. Tuscany, friends and lobster.  Could life get any better?

IMG_6439Roses, Lemon trees, Cypress trees …

IMG_6440And a full moon.  My cup overfloweth at times like these …

Posted in Fish and seafood, Herbs and plants, Primi (first courses - usually a pasta or risotto), Recipes from outside Italy, Secondi (main course, usually meat based), Travel and Tales, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 16 Comments