Italy is, without a doubt, a country where good quality food is of paramount importance. The Italians are very proud of their local produce and regional speciality dishes, and any tourist willing to take the recommendation of a restaurateur is guaranteed a friendly and passionate introduction to the typical Italian four-course dinner menu (antipasti, primi, secondi e dessert).
Italian food is also widely exported. Many people consider pizza a traditional American dish (although the American deep dish base with lashings of cheese only vaguely resembles the Italian tradition!), and fresh pastas and sauces (again, of variable levels of Italian origin) are available in every high street supermarket across Britain. The Italians would indisputably be horrified at such bastardisations of their culinary heritage as Pizza Hut’s ‘hot dog bites’ and Chicago Town’s stuffed crust pizza. However, with basic flavours of tomato, cheese and a simple carbohydrate, it’s certainly a cuisine that is appealing to the masses.
So, with all that choice, what on earth were we to make as a ‘traditional’ Italian dish? In the past, we’ve made our own pasta, pizza, gnocchi and risotto. Between us, we’ve eaten gelato and salami in Venice, tagliatelle Bolognese and calzone in Bologna, gnocchi and pizza in Rome, and tiramisu in all three. We were lucky that today is a bank holiday in England, which meant we had an entire day to fritter away preparing the elements of all four Italian courses, which Ash in particular was very keen on. So with all that hard work ahead of us, we saw no other option but finally break into the monster panettone Ash won in a work raffle at Christmas at breakfast time. Insanely, it weighs 1.5kg, so in theory it should last forever, but now that we’ve discovered how wonderful it is when toasted, it may get devoured fairly quickly…
Then, when at Tesco stocking up on essentials like mozzarella and passata, we couldn’t resist also picking up a cheeky pizza and a Pinot Grigio for lunch. It is a holiday, after all! (This pizza is admittedly one of those not-really-Italian versions mentioned earlier… but it did still taste good.)
But then it was time to get to work doing some cooking of our own and preparing our four course Italian feast, accompanied by the same torrential rain we experienced on a recent weekend in Rome. At least this time we’d planned a day of cooking indoors instead of trying to explore the Colosseum!
We could think of no better experts to guide us on our Italian journey than the two greedy Italians, Gennaro Contaldo and Antonio Carluccio, and our first three recipes have either been inspired by or directly lifted from their book.
Antipasti: Tricolore Salad
With the rich, protein- and carb-heavy dishes to follow, a light, palate-cleansing antipasti is definitely the way forward. The fresh flavours of tomato, mozzarella and basil are very typically Italian, and the creamy avocado not only adds another delicious flavour but also helps to represent the colours of the Italian flag. We love these flavours, and every time we eat this salad we comment on the fact that we should eat it more.
Half a beef tomato
125g buffalo mozzarella
Half an avocado
Pinch of dried oregano
Handful of basil leaves
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Slice the tomatoes, mozzarella and avocado and arrange on a serving dish. (Ideally this would be layered all together, but because we prepared the tomato and mozzarella ahead of time, we just fanned out the avocado on the plate separately.
2. Season with salt and pepper, sprinkle over the oregano and basil leaves, and drizzle with oil if desired.
Primi: Tagliatelle alla Bolognese
Contrary to popular belief, a true Italian would never put a Bolognese sauce anywhere near spaghetti. Similarly, it wouldn’t go anywhere near garlic or herbs. Far from the lash-up ‘Bolognese’ we might make as an easy weeknight dinner, this version is as traditional as it gets – and it’s definitely worth the cooking time.
For the pasta:
300g ‘00’ flour
For the sauce:
1 large white onion, finely chopped
50ml extra virgin olive oil
500g mince (we used beef, but you can use any combination of beef, pork or veal)
100ml dry white wine
100g tomato puree
Freshly grated Parmesan
1. For the pasta, mix the flour and semolina together, make a well in the centre and add the eggs. Gradually mix until combined, then knead until you get a smooth, soft dough – pliable but not sticky. Shape into a ball, wrap in cling film and rest for at least 30 minutes.
2. When ready, divide the dough into four portions and put each one through a pasta machine, starting at the highest setting, and repeat the process, turning down the setting by one each time, until you get to number 1. Run through the tagliatelle cutter on the machine.
3. Meanwhile, fry the onion in the oil until soft (about 5 minutes), then add the mince and brown. Add the wine and allow to evaporate, then stir in the tomato puree and passata, cover with a lid and heat until bubbling. Remove the lid and leave to simmer gently for 2 hours.
4. When the sauce is ready, cook the tagliatelle in boiling until al dente (about 3-4 minutes if fresh, 8-10 if dried). Drain and mix together with the sauce. Season to taste, sprinkle with Parmesan and serve immediately, ensuring that the sauce merely coats the pasta and doesn’t drown it.
Secondi: Triglie alla Livornese (Red Mullet with Tomatoes)
Although there are many options for a secondi (main) course, ranging from seafood to veal to rabbit, we felt that a light, Mediterranean-style fish dish would help to counter-balance the rich sauce of the Bolognese (even though it does feel strange having the fish course after the meat one!). It also has the benefit of being incredibly simple, which is just what you want when cooking a four-course dinner.
4 red mullet, gutted, trimmed and scaled
6 tbsp olive oil
2 shallots, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
6 basil leaves
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 lemon, cut into quarters
1. In a pan large enough to hold all of the fish, heat the oil. Add the shallots and garlic, and sauté gently until cooked but not coloured (about 5 minutes). Add the passata, basil, and salt and pepper to taste, then bring to the boil.
2. Reduce the heat to medium, add the fish and cook for about 6 minutes each side.
3. Serve the fish whole with the lemon quarters (which we forgot – oops) and topped with some of the intensely flavoured sauce. Good crusty ciabatta bread and a garnish of rocket leaves is the perfect accompaniment.
Dessert: Panna cotta with strawberry sauce
When out for a meal with colleagues on Thursday night, Miranda ordered panna cotta and was disappointed to find that it didn’t have the characteristic ‘wobble’ that is so highly valued on My Kitchen Rules, Masterchef and similar. She commented to a friend that she’d never made panna cotta before, and said friend was very surprised. Thus, the seed of making a panna cotta dessert was planted, and in the end it won out over other firm Italian favourite, tiramisu. The panna cotta recipe comes from Ramsay’s Best Menus, and is a pleasingly light alternative to other recipes that are packed with double cream and eggs. The strawberry sauce recipe comes from Ash throwing things into a pan, and is therefore very approximate!
For the panna cotta:
400ml whole milk
1 vanilla pod, split and seeds scraped
80g caster sugar
3 sheets leaf gelatine
150 creamy natural yoghurt
For the strawberry sauce:
2-3 tbsp sugar
50-100ml boiling water
Splash of raspberry balsamic vinegar (thank you Chris for ours!)
1. Put the milk, vanilla seeds and pod and sugar into a saucepan. Heat gently until the sugar is dissolved, then bring to a simmer. Meanwhile, soak the gelatine leaves in cold water to soften.
2. As soon as the milk begins to bubble, remove from the heat. Drain the gelatine leaves and squeeze out excess water, then add them to the hot milk and stir until melted. Leave to cool completely, then strain through a fine sieve into a bowl.
3. Add the yoghurt to the cooled mixture, whisking to combine. Pour into 170ml moulds, cover with cling film and chill for a few hours until set (preferably overnight but we didn’t do this!)
4. For the sauce, put the strawberries, sugar and water into a saucepan. Simmer over a low heat until thickened, like jam. Add raspberry balsamic vinegar to taste.
We then served with a basil leaf to again represent the colours of the Italian flag!
Although this all must seem like a LOT of food, they were reasonably small portion sizes so we didn’t feel stuffed at the end of it, which must be how the Italians manage it. We accompanied it with a nice bottle of Sangiovese-Shiraz – Sangiovese is an Italian grape that we discovered whilst in Bologna and it is now our favoured easy-drinking red wine.
And now that it’s all over… it must be time for a celebratory Amaretto. This Italian feast was terrific (a word of warning, though: the bones in the red mullet are very fiddly), and Austria now has a lot to live up to. We will have to wait and see whether it can meet Italy’s very high standards!