Food, Wine and Cooking

Easy Recipes for Winter – Porcini and Truffles

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This week has been very wintery here on the Southern Highlands with strong winds that drill through your body wrapping their icy fingers around your bones.   This has made me retreat inside to sit in front of the fire with my cookbooks rediscovering some of my favourite recipes for winter. I particularly love to cook with mushrooms at this time of year. The shelves of my local grocer are packed with a myriad of varieties. They are weird and wonderful with their fanciful shapes and colours. Portobello mushrooms are the king of these as they are the size of dinner plates. Seeing them brings back childhood memories of wandering through the paddocks after the rain and picking these for a special dinner.

I think this was the first thing that I cooked with my Mum. She would let me sit with her in the kitchen and peel the skin off the top of the mushroom cap and remove the stalk. These days there is no need to peel mushrooms as they are all clean and respectable but remember these were field mushrooms so there was plenty of cow poo around. Mum would then put a large iron fry-pan on the wood stove and in it would go a huge slab of butter. When that was sizzling she would put in the mushroom and fry them off. Just before she served them she would add some fresh cream, salt and pepper and a handful of very finely chopped parsley. We would enjoy a feast of mushrooms on toast for dinner that night.

Porcini and Mozzarella Pie with Pine Nuts and Truffle

Sformatini di funghi porcini e mozzarella con pinoli

Ingredients

• 300 gms fresh porcini mushrooms (or other favourites)
• 200gms fresh mozzarella cheese (not that horrid hard stuff wrapped in plastic)
• 6 eggs
• 1 clove garlic
• 5 tablespoons cream
• 20 gms butter
• Salt and pepper to taste
Garnish
• 1 handful roasted pine nuts
• Leaf salad
• Fresh truffle
Procedure
1. Preheat oven to 140 degrees C.
2. Clean the fresh mushrooms (do not wash) and chop
3. Melt butter in frying pan and add chopped clove of garlic and fry untill golden
4. Add mushrooms and season with salt and pepper and cook with lid on until tender
5. Cut mozzarella into small cubes
6. Mix eggs, cream and salt in a bowl and add the mozzarella and cooked mushrooms
7. Grease and line the bottom of ramekins with baking paper and spoon mixture into the ramekins
8. Place ramekins in a large baking dish and gently half fill baking dish with cold water
9. Place in the oven and cook for 20 minutes
10. Serve on a bed of salad leaves and garnish with toasted pine nuts and shaved truffles.

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Roasted Veal with Porcini Mushrooms

Arrosto di Vitello con Funghi Porcini

Ingredients

  • 700 gms single piece of veal and flatten with a mallet (not too thin)
  • 200 gms mortadella
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 clove of garlic chopped
  • 2 stems of rosemary
  • Salt and pepper
  • 100gms dry porcini mushrooms
  • 1 Tbs grated parmesan chees
  • Dry white wine
  • Olive oil

Procedure

  1. Preheat the oven to 180 C
  2. Soak the porcini mushrooms in hot water for 10 minutes
  3. Beat the eggs with a pinch of salt, parmesan cheese and 1 Tbs chopped rosemary
  4. Heat a little olive oil in a frying pan and make an omelette – set aside
  5. Drain the porcini (saving the water) and cook in a frying pan with a little olive oil and garlic
  6. Lay the meat on a chopping board and cover with the slices of mortadella, then the omelette and finally the mushrooms
  7. Roll up the veal, place a rosemary sprig on top and tie the meat up with string
  8. Brown meat in a cast iron pan (suitable for the oven as well)
  9. Add the porcini water and white wine
  10. Roast in the oven for about 45 mins to one hour
  11.  Remove the meat and rest
  12.  Reduce the roasting juices and pass through a sieve and serve with the meat

I love to serve this with rosemary and garlic roasted potatoes and spinach Roman style.

Hint:  To stop potatoes sticking to the pan when roasting or sautéing them, place a sheet of baking paper on the bottom of the pan. Guaranteed crunchy potatoes every time!

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Spinach Roman Style

Spinaci alla Romana

This recipe appeared in The Times Magazine in an article by Judith Barrett, who adapted it from “The Food of Southern Italy,” by Carlo Middione.

Ingredients

  • 3 tablespoons of the smallest available raisins, black or golden
  • 4 medium-size bunches of spinach (about 2 ½ pounds), washed at least twice, but not dried, and trimmed of stems
  • 1/3 cup virgin olive oil
  • 5 medium garlic cloves, peeled and well crushed
  • 4 tablespoons pine nuts
  • Big pinch of salt
  • 6 or 7 grindings of fresh black pepper.

Procedure

1. Put the raisins in a small bowl with enough warm water to cover. Soak for about 15 minutes. Set aside.

2. Put the wet spinach in a frying pan large enough to hold it all and cook over a high flame until it collapses and turns dark green, stirring constantly. Transfer the spinach to a colander and set it aside. If the frying pan is wet, dry it with a paper towel.

3. Pour the olive oil into the frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and brown it, being careful it doesn’t burn, and then remove and discard it. Take the raisins from the water, squeeze them as dry as possible and add them to the oil with the pine nuts. Turn the heat to medium and cook until the nuts turn a golden color. Be careful, because the nuts can burn easily.

4. Return the spinach to the pan, stir it with a fork and add salt and pepper to taste. Mix all the ingredients and continue cooking for about a minute. You may add additional olive oil if you think the spinach looks dry. Serves 4.

Categories: Cooking School, Food, Wine and Cooking, Italy, Photography, Recipes, Travel, Uncategorized, Wine | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Olive Oil – The Life Blood of Italy

Last week I met Gabriella, for lunch at a winery on the south coast of NSW not far from the village of Milton and the town of Ulladulla. Cupitt’s Winery sits snuggly on a hillside overlooking a lake and in the distance, the hills rise up to meet the clear blue autumn sky.

Over a delicious lunch and a glass of mulled wine (to keep the autumn chill out of our bones) we reminisced about the time that we’d first met in Italy in October 2012. We were both attending a week-long photographic workshop at the magic destination of Dievole winery in Tuscany.

Dievole is the quintessential Italian experience. The rolling Tuscan hills are covered in olive groves and vineyards where the vines leaves are changing to vibrant reds, oranges and rusts in the crisp autumn weather; quaint hillside towns and villages; cafes where you can sit in the sun sipping strong coffee and let time pass you by; small family-run restaurants serving fresh, local produce such as autumn truffles, freshly picked mushrooms of many shapes and colours, fresh farm cheese and a variety of meat and poultry. Every meal was an excuse to try something new, a specialty of the area prepared by the chef in his/her own style, or that of his/her mother and grandmother and all the generations of cooks before them. Culinary traditions run deep in the Italian kitchen and are held in awe by those behind the stove.

Sunrise over the Vineyards - Tuscany

Sunrise over the Vineyards – Tuscany

We woke early on our first morning to find the valleys shrouded in mist which created an ideal atmospheric “shoot” for our first photographic excursion. During the week we enjoyed many wonderful forays into the countryside, towns and villages snapping away to capture “the moment”.

One excursion I remember most fondly was visiting a nearby farm and oil press. Which was in the midst of its annual harvest and oil production. The owner gave us a tour of the press which was “all systems go” at the time as many local farmers had bought their olive crop in for pressing. At the end of the production line the oil was decanted into a variety of cans, bottles, flasks and any other suitable containers that could be mustered for the occasion.

Olive oil is a staple in Italian cooking and runs in the veins of every Italian. We were treated to the fabulous experience of tasting the year’s production on-site. In the pressing room, there is an open fire-place where crusty bread was toasted over the coals then doused with lashings of rich, peppery olive oil fresh from the press, on top of which were placed generous slices of pancetta and pecorino cheese. This mouth-watering combination was washed down by the vineyard’s red wine.

We stood next to the fire, chatting to the hum and clatter of the machinery as the giant stone wheels whirred around pressing the olives and extracting every last drop of liquid gold.

Categories: Cooking School, Food, Wine and Cooking, Italy, Photography, Recipes, Travel, Uncategorized, Wine | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Holiday Rental Abroad – A Checklist for a Hassle Free Holiday – Part 2

OK – now you know what “must have”, you can start looking and the first step is ….

Research, research and then some more research.

Sounds like a lot of hard work – but it is not if you look in the right places.

1. The internet
This is the easiest way to find a villa/apartment. But you may be overwhelmed by the volume of choice. My tip is refine your search as to the
• Location
• Type of accommodation
• Key characteristics that are important to you such as pool, golf, mountains, seaside etc

So examples search strings could be:
• “Luxury villa” + Tuscany + pool
• Budget + “holiday accommodation” + Italy
• “Apartment to rent”+ Venice + “San Marco”
• Beach+pool+villa+amalfi

When your internet search is delivered, look at the first few sites and see if they carry the stock of accommodation that you’re looking for. If not – refine your search string.

Don’t spend too long on each site but bookmark (add to your favourites) the websites that look interesting to come back to later for an in depth search. I tend to shortlist about 5 sites.

Now that you have your rental checklist of “must haves” as well as a shortlist of sites, the fun really begins.

Most sites have search criteria from which you can select, so plug in your “must haves” – number of bedrooms, rental period, pool, location, etc. Now carefully read the detailed descriptions and inclusions of each of the accommodations. If the details do not match your “must haves” there is no point getting hooked on the pretty pictures – move on. When you see a property that matches your criteria either print off the details and pictures, or bookmark that particular property.

I admit that I have a secret pleasure. Once I have a shortlist of say 10 properties I love to get into bed that night and read the detailed descriptions and peruse the pictures at leisure without interruption. I have found that during the night, while I sleep, one or two properties percolate up through my subconscious and in the morning, I have the shortlist in my mind. I then rate the property descriptions by most liked and least liked. That way I can concentrate on a handful of “most liked” properties for in-depth investigation.

Above all, make sure you carefully read what has been described, not what you “want” to read. It’s all too easy to “think” you read about some attribute only to find when you excitedly arrive at your destination that the swimming pool you’ve been dreaming about is in fact a paddling pool, or some such other disappointment!.

2. Ask friends and associates for referrals
Referrals are a great way to source accommodation. If other people have had a good experience when dealing with a particular vendor or renting a particular property, then half the hard work is already done for you.

However:
• Trusting someone else’s opinion is great as long as you have similar tastes and/or requirements.
• How long ago did they rent this property?
• What could have changed since then?
• Has the property been well maintained?
• Is the same vendor and or agent managing the peoperty?

3. Check out the bona fides of the agent/vendor before you send any money
I hear loads of people say they are nervous about dealing with vendors over the internet. I completely understand and have felt the same in the past. The following are a few tips that I use to check the bona fides of the vendor I am about to deal with:
• do they have a corporate website
• are there testimonials on the website
• check out the reviews the villa/apartment on Trip Advisor – contact the most recent reviewers and post a question
• start an email conversation with the vendor and get more information about items and conditions that are on your “must have” list
• ask for a phone number and call them
• ask for references from previous clients
• make sure that you have adequate travel insurance before you send any money

Money, Money, Money!

Once you have the numbers of participants confirmed, you need to receive a non-refundable deposit from them. This deposit is refundable only if other participants take their place. Otherwise other members of your group will have to absorb this extra financial burden.

OK – Now you have your ideal villa/apartment sorted it is time to get the finances sorted.
Show me the colour of your money
When renting with friends and family members you need to make sure that you get a firm financial commitment from them prior to you parting with any of your own hard earned cash. You certainly don’t want to commit to renting a 6 bedroom villa and then a month before you leave on your holiday, someone pulls out of the deal and leaves you carrying the financial burden.

So my advice is to get all your companions to “show you the colour of their money” (and commitment) early! Well before you have to make your initial deposit payment to the vendor.

I work on the basis that the individual cost will include:
• rent
• optional outgoings (air-con, heating, pool, chef, maid service, etc)
• housekeeping (this covers groceries, wine and liquor, household incidentals, etc).

What about housekeeping?

In the past I have found that asking everyone to chip into a housekeeping kitty prior to leaving is the best and the most hassle free way to manage the day-to-day expenses while you are living it up in your villa or apartment.

I have loaded the housekeeping kitty onto a designated credit or debit card for the sole use of making your purchases or getting cash from the ATM. I keep all the receipts and regularly reconcile these against the housekeeping kitty. This is the best way to make sure that everyone feels that there has been an equal contribution to the running expenses and also, as the organiser, you are not out of pocket.

Depending on your anticipated lifestyle, and the group that you are renting with, the housekeeping kitty can vary from $100 per day to $200 per day. That should be ample. Towards the end of the rental period if there are surplus funds in kitty, I have also paid for some meals when out at restaurants, entrance fees and bar bills etc.

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In the next blog I will give you some ideas of making the most of your holiday such as:
• discovering those exciting out of the way adventures
• finding the best local produce
• dining with the locals
• shopping
• making your villa a home away from home .

Categories: Food, Wine and Cooking, Italy, Language, Photography, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Holiday Rental Abroad – A Checklist for a Hassle Free Holiday – Part 1

“La Dolce Vita“

A Guide to Renting a Villa/Apartment

Do you want:
• a hassle free Italian vacation?
• to experience living in Italy and being part of the local scene?
• to be not just another tourist
• to eat great food just like the locals?
• to experience “la dolce vita”?

Yes?

Then the answer is; rent a villa or an apartment and get in touch with the real Italians and the unique experience of living the Italian dream.

Renting a villa or an apartment is a sure-fire way to have a fun holiday in Italy. Going to the local supermarket and doing your groceries, getting to know the butcher, the baker, the fruit and veggie man, the wine merchant (really important!), eating fabulous food at restaurants the locals go to, and discovering all those hidden out-of-the-way places that are not in the guide books.

I hear from lots of people that they would love to do this. But for many it just seems too hard, or they don’t know where to start, or they are afraid they will get ripped off.

I have rented apartments and villas all over Italy (and other countries) and I would like to share with you my guide to hassle free renting. Here is a checklist that will help you along on your journey:

Work out precisely what type of accommodation and location you want:
1. Who will your companions be for this rental; just you, or are your family joining you, are your friends coming along as well, and how well does everyone know each other?
2. How many bedrooms and what type of beds will you need in each room – – single, double, queen or king and is the linen provided? Also – be careful if bedrooms join each other, or you have to walk through a bedroom to the shared bathroom/toilet. Very difficult if you have a call of nature in the middle of the night.
3. How many bathrooms do you need – bath or shower? There is no point on having 12 people in a villa and have only 2 bathrooms/toilets. If the bathrooms are not en-suite, I work on the basis of one shared bathroom to 4 people. Separate toilets are a good idea if you have a large number of guests.
4. Is there a washing machine? Finding and then washing your clothes in a laundromat is no fun when on holiday.
5. Is there an outdoor entertaining area? You will want to eat your meals “al fresco” and enjoy those wonderful warm evenings.
6. Is there a pool? Usually pools are open from late May to October. Also, are there any costs incurred in running the pool?
7. Is there air conditioning or heating? Will you need to use this? Italy can be stiflingly hot in summer and freezing in autumn and winter, and importantly, is the cost included in the rent? If not – how is it calculated and paid for?
8. Are there extra cleaning services available and what is the cost per hour? When you are on holiday the last thing you want to be doing is scrubbing the toilets. It is a good idea to organise at least one to two extra cleans a week if there are a large number sharing over a period of a few weeks. Often, there is a weekly clean included in the weekly rental.
9. Is there a chef that will come to the villa and cook for you? Does the chef bring all the ingredients and is this included in the cost? Having a chef is a great idea if you are not in close proximity to restaurants, and after all, you are on holiday and you don’t want to cook dinner every night. Also, you can learn a few cooking tips to impress your friends when you return home.

I remember a holiday where I organised a chef to cook every second night. He was very open to showing us a few of his cooking techniques however most of my friends were uninterested in cooking lessons but when this Adonis turned up there was not one female left on the couch. Not only did he bring all the ingredients, prepare the food, serve and cleared the table, he then washed up and left the kitchen spotless. Worth every Euro I say!


10. What is the access to the villa? Are there many stairs or a steep pathway to your front door? Remember – everything that you carry in also has to be carried out and that includes your suitcases, groceries/wine, and no doubt, the many wonderful purchases that you will make during your Italian vacation. Also remember that all the trash has to be deposited in the communal garbage and recycling bins on the street.
11. Check the restrictions for car parking. Is there off-street parking and for how many cars? If not, what are the restrictions for on-street parking?
12. Is the accommodation in a quiet area? Check out Google maps/earth, or ask the vendor if it is close to a busy road, train line, industrial or commercial area. I once rented an apartment on a pedestrian only street in Taormina, Sicily. Great I thought – a really central location and no cars. Alas, people partied till the wee hours up and down the street and then all the commercial deliveries had to be made before 7.00am. Thank goodness the windows were double glazed.
13. Is there an Internet connection and/or mobile phone coverage? We are now totally reliant on easy communication and expect that we can call our family and connect to the internet anywhere we go. However – that is not the case in Italy. Find out if your accommodation is connected (wi-fi or dial-up) and is there a cost to you.
14. Is the accommodation child friendly? Stairs – internal and external, a fenced-in garden, a fenced- in pool area, is the garden area safe for children (water features, steep cliffs etc)?
15. Do you want to be close to a village or town? This is important because you will need a car to get around if you are in the countryside. If you have a car and you rent accommodation in a town or village what are the parking arrangements/costs?

16. What services does your local village or town have? Restaurants and bars, supermarket (co-op), specialty food vendors, bank and/or ATM etc, doctor, chemist, etc
17. What are the closest transport links? Train services vary in Italy from rapid express to very, very slow! What is the closest airport and car hire place?
18. What area of Italy do you want to vacation in? Are you hankering for a remote location to commune with nature? Or, are you an urbanite that needs to be near all the action? Or are you someone in between – nature and action? Check out what your locality has to offer: culture, art, music, scenery, nature walks, parks, gardens, boating, beaches, golf and tennis etc, shopping, wineries, food, historic locations, museums etc…
19. Consider the time of year that you take your holiday in Italy? Spring (March to May) and Autumn ( September to November – however take note that late October and November can be cold) are the best. Summer (June to August) can be really very hot especially late July and August. Note – Italians take their holidays in August and tend to holiday in Italy. Consequently, many shops and restaurants will be closed and the prime holiday destinations such as the seaside, islands and the mountains will be very crowded with holidaying Italians.
20. What are the costs?
• Rent per week/month (Remember to ask for a discount for longer bookings or when making low season bookings).
• Rent per week/month (ask for a discount for longer bookings or low season bookings)
• Money transfer costs/bank fees
• Consider the exchange rate – are the rental costs quoted in your currency or the Euro
• Security deposit (refundable how? and when?)
• Chef – paid directly to the chef or the booking agent/vendor
• Extra maid service – paid directly to the maid or the booking agent/vendor
• Extras such as – air conditioning, heating, pool etc
• Are there any other staff such as a gardener or housekeeper who may need to receive a tip?

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OK – now you have your list of “must haves”, you can start looking….

Next blog we will discover how to go about finding your ideal villa or apartment.

Categories: Food, Wine and Cooking, Italy, Language, Photography, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Italy on a Plate – Pasta and Porcini

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Dievole is an enchanted valley not far from Siena. The name is synonymous with the vineyard that was established here over 1,000 years ago and has since been lovingly cultivated by generations of the families who have made this valley their home.

Today, Dievole is still an enchanted place. I spent ten wonderful days here sampling the wine, relishing great local food and fresh produce, enjoying warm Italian hospitality, and above all, marvelling at the fantastic and beautiful scenery; the lush valleys, the rolling hillsides covered in vines that were adopting their autumn colours of gold and red, the deep green oak forests that are home to wild boar, and the quaint stone-built villages clinging to the hillsides.

What bought me to Dievole was my interest in photography. I came to learn and refine my skills with a fantastic teacher – Chris Corradino from New York. It was a great experience to see Italy with fresh eyes and a different perspective through the camera lens.

Our week flew by with excursions to interesting and different vistas; an urban shoot in Firenze, exploring small villages, nosing around old buildings, capturing open spaces and dawn shoots to get that special light. We were faced with all sorts of technical and artistic challenges along the way which were quickly resolved with Chris’ encouragement. A sample of my photos accompanies this blog.

Dievole has a wonderful gastronomic history. I enjoyed many memorable meals and the opportunity to talk to the chef and waiters who are passionate about serving great food as they are about eating it. A couple of culinary highlights demonstrate the essence of Italian cooking to me – the use of fresh, local produce and letting the flavours of the food speak for themselves. In typical Italian fashion, dishes are not complicated by conflicting tastes, textures and are not swimming in sauces. Plates are simply and beautifully presented where the ingredients are king and not necessarily dominated by the person in the kitchen that put it altogether.

Pasta is a dish that illustrates the Italian food ideal of simplicity. Every locality and region in Italy has its own signature pasta and here in this corner of Tuscany, it is pici, also known as pinci. This is a hand-rolled, eggless thick spaghetti and a good example of “cucina povera” (poor man’s cuisine) — utilizing only flour, water, green Tuscan olive oil. Originating from the Val d’Orcia region (the area between Montalcino and Montepulciano). This pasta is best served with sauces such as: briciole – breadcrumbs, aglione – spicy garlic tomato sauce, boscaiola – porcini mushrooms, and ragù – a meat based sauce, game meat such as – cinghiale – wild boar, leper – hare and anatra – duck.
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Cooking Tip – What is the correct pasta serving size?

Firstly, how much pasta you need to cook depends on a number of factors – whether you are cooking a first course of a main course, the type of pasta you are cooking, and how hungry your guests are.
The general rule is that the amount of pasta to cook per person should be roughly:

•75g-115g/3oz-4oz dried pasta;
•115g-150g/4oz-5oz fresh pasta;
•175g-200g/6oz-7oz filled pasta, such as ravioli ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I have two recipes for you – one a quick and easy dish for a light lunch, and the other, is a heartier meal with complex rich flavours. You won’t be disappointed…

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Pici con Pomodoro e Porcini (serves 4)

Ingredients
• Pici pasta – fresh or dry (amount per the above guide)
• 2 tablespoons cold pressed extra virgin – a must
• 1 punnet ripe! cherry tomatoes
• 2 cloves finely chopped fresh garlic
• 250 mls dry white wine (and a glass for yourself)
• Thinly sliced porcini mushrooms (or others if you can’t find porcini)
• Salt and pepper
• Parmesan cheese

Method
1. Prepare the pasta according to the packet instructions and for the number of serves required
2. When the pasta is just al dente drain and coat with olive oil and keep warm
3. In a frying pan heat the olive oil and toss in chopped garlic and stir for a minute
4. Splash in some white wine and cook off for a minute
5. Toss in washed cherry tomatoes and heat through
6. Toss in the cooked pasta and heat through
7. Season to taste
8. Place on a flat serving plate and arrange the sliced fresh mushrooms on top
9. Offer parmesan cheese and a crusty bread roll.
10. Perfect with a dry white wine – pinot grigio or similar

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Ragu di Anatra (Duck Breast Ragu (serves 4)

Ingredients
• 20g butter
• 2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
• 2 duck breasts (3 if small) trimmed of skin and excess fat, thinly sliced into strips
• 6 slices chopped pancetta
• 1 finely chopped onion
• 2 garlic cloves finely chopped
• 1 finely chopped carrot
• 1 finely chopped celery stalk
• 2 bay leaves
• 2 tbsp. tomato paste
• 250ml dry red wine such as Chianti (and of course a glass for you)
• 600g good-quality tomato pasta sauce
• 1 cup (250ml) chicken stock
• Grated parmesan, to serve

Method

1. Heat the butter and oil in a frypan over medium-high heat.
2. Cook the duck, in batches, until browned.
3. Remove duck with a slotted spoon and place in a bowl.
4. Drain all but 1 tablespoon oil from the pan and heat over medium heat.
5. Add pancetta, onion, garlic, carrot, celery and bay leaves to the pan and cook, stirring, for 2-3 minutes until they start to colour.
6. Return the duck to the pan with any resting juices,
7. Add the tomato paste and cook, stirring, for 1 minute.
8. Add the red wine and cook for 2-3 minutes until the liquid has reduced slightly.
9. Add the tomato sauce and chicken stock, bring to a simmer, then reduce heat to low, cover and gently simmer for 45 minutes or until the duck is tender and the sauce has thickened slightly.
10. Season the sauce to taste and serve the ragu with the cooked pici
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Do you know any foodies? Please forward my blog to them and ask them to sign up – more fab recipes to come!

In my next blog I visit the olive oil press for an amazing treat.

Categories: Cooking School, Food, Wine and Cooking, Italy, Language, Photography, Recipes, Travel, Uncategorized, Wine | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Jordan – At the crossroads

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Jordan is a peaceful and law abiding country. Here traffic rules are made to be broken. No matter if the driver is a hot blooded young stud with 6 cylinders under him or a doddery old codger chugging around in a clapped out Toyota – the rule of the road is mob rule!

Unlike the drivers in Egypt, the Jordanian drivers are quite circumspect about using their car horns. So travelling around the streets is comparatively a quiet affair, but nonetheless entertaining. When stopped at traffic lights, it is quite common that one or two vehicles will streak by through the red light, without any concern for oncoming traffic, pedestrians or livestock. At roundabouts which are numerous, drivers merging will edge onto the roundabout and then come to a halt in front of the oncoming traffic and sit and stare when a driver blasts the horn. Pedestrian crossings are non-existent, and if they are marked on the road they appear to be for decoratative purposes only. Lane markings on the roads and freeways are not used to separate the traffic into lanes as everyone drives right down the middle of the line. Camels, donkeys and sheep have right of way. Camels are treated with the utmost caution. If you are unlucky enough to hit one, it will end up sitting in the front seat with you. Then there are the trucks – big ugly oil-dripping, fume-belching monsters that rule the road. You will often see these pulled up on the roadside, with the driver getting out his prayer mat to observe the 5 times a day call to prayer. They certainly need Mohammad in the front seat with them the way they drive.

My driver is Fadi; around thirty, darkly handsome, softly spoken and with the largest and most impressive eyebrow (note the singular – his is a monobrow) I have ever seen. This dark, lustrous growth crowns his eyes like a toupee for the face. Jehad my guide makes very witty observations and comments about Fadi’s eyebrow thatch which Fadi takes in good spirits. Fadi is happy to enter into the banter, making self-deprecating comments as well.

Jehad is another kettle of fish altogether; he is well travelled, has modern and moderate views, speaks several languages and is politically aware and very voluble in his opinions. I sit in the back listening to Fadi and Jehad chatting in Arabic; instinctively I know when the conversation has strayed onto politics. Everywhere I go in Egypt and Jordan – politics is hot.

As a young man Jehad left Jordan and lived in Rome for a number of years where he studied hospitality and then worked in hotel and restaurant management. He met his wife who is Australian, then left Rome for a new life in Brisbane. After a few years and one daughter later he found that he was missing his homeland and needed to return to Jordan and now lives in the capital, Amman.

As we drove along, we enjoyed many interesting conversations about the life, lifestyle and the politics of the Middle East, and Jordan in particular. It seems that most people in Jordan and Egypt are concerned about the right wing Islamic fundamentalists becoming more powerful and influential. This is not a direction that most educated people want to go. They see Saudi Arabia is exerting more pressure to introduce draconian Sharia laws that will make life intolerable for most women in Egypt and Jordan.

Traditionally, the veil has not been part of Jordanian and Egyptian culture; however, many more women are adopting the veil or being made to wear the all-black dress covering the face, feet, hands and eyes. They appear like a black apparition walking along the street. As I sit in the cool air con of the car wearing short sleeves and jeans, I can’t imagine how hot and uncomfortable this outfit would be.

Life in the middle east is difficult; clashing political views, democratic reform is hard fought, equality for women is not enshrined, a hash and water deprived landscape, autocratic governments, equal education and employment opportunities for all unheard of. This being said, everyone I came into contact with was a pleasure to meet; proud of their history and culture, warm and welcoming to a stranger, generous and kind. I would certainly encourage everyone to make the journey and be wowed by the fantastic sights, the great food, the rich culture, the people and the heart and soul of these ancient lands where mighty conquers made their mark, crusaders were vanquished and where Moses is buried. This is an ancient and wondrous land.

Categories: Egypt, Food, Wine and Cooking, Jordan, Language, Photography, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Italy on a Plate – Pumpkin and Parmesan Custards – Yummy!!!

Italy has many festivals and “The Festa della Zucca” held in October in a small town Venzone – in the Friuli–Venezia which is Italy’s most North-Eastern region. Venzone is pumpkin central. The town center transforms itself into a Medieval carnival with fire eaters, jugglers and street dancers all parading in the streets which are lit by torches and candles. The locals get into the mood by dressing as nobles, knights and ladies, innkeepers, shopkeepers and merchants. The atmosphere is enhanced as the shops are decorated with pumpkins and gastronomic delights such as pumpkin pizza, pumpkin gnocchi, pumpkin crostini and more. The humble pumpkin is elevated to royal status for the occasion.

The origins of the Pumpkin Festival are legendary. The Noble of the village of Venzone wanted to beautify and fortify the town and used the townsfolk as labourers. On completion of the restoration, the workers were not rewarded including a special craftsman who was to decorate the copper dome of the Cathedral of Venzone with a golden ball. But he too was not paid for his work so he craftily replaced the ball on the golden dome of the cathedral with a pumpkin. The Noble realized that he was tricked by the artist only on the day when the ball fell from its position on the dome and smashed to the ground.

Recently I had 8 friends for lunch and like every cook, planning the meal is half the fun. Poring over the cook books, being inspired by far a way places and cuisines and salivating over sumptuous and mouth-watering food photos. However, this time I decided to cook lunch using some of the recipes that I received at the Casa Ombuto cooking school in Tuscany last year. You can read more about this in my other blogs.

The lunch menu was:
Antipasto – Filo Cups filled with Aubergine Sauce (salsa con melanzane)
Prima Piatti – Pumpkin and Parmesan custards (Copette di zucca e parmigiano)
Secondo Piatti – “Jump in the Mouth” Veal with Sage and Ham (saltimbocca alla romana)
Dolce – Tiramasu (this literally means “pick you up”

The Pumpkin and Parmesan Custards were real winners as they were a new taste sensation and a different approach to serving pumpkin. The result is a lovely creamy custard that is slightly sweet from the pumpkin and the complex hint of the smoked cheese. I think the smokier the cheese the better.

So here is the recipe for you to try….
Ingredients
• 350 gms of cooked and pureed pumpkin
• 320 ml pouring cream
• 2 eggs
• 1 tablespoon grated smoked cheese (I used smoked cheddar)
• 50 gms grated parmesan cheese
• Salt and pepper to taste

Method

1. Preheat oven to 150 degrees
2. Pass cooked and pureed pumpkin through a sieve
3. Mix pumpkin, cream and smoked cheese and salt and pepper until smooth
4. Add the eggs and mix well
5. Pour into individual heat proof ramekins
6. Bake in a “bagno maria” (a water bath) for about 45 minutes or until the cream has thickened when you give it a gentle shake
7. Take out of oven and sprinkle about a teaspoon of grated parmesan cheese on top of each custard
8. Place under a hot grill until the cheese is golden brown
9. Serve warm with some crusty bread and a full-bodied white wine – maybe a pinot grigio from Fruili.

Happy cooking and eating… do you have any other favourite Italian dishes that you would like the recipe for? Just drop me a line in the comment box below.

For information, prices and dates for cooking schools in Tuscany please contact me at varley.e@gmail.com

Categories: Cooking School, Food, Wine and Cooking, Italy, Language, Photography, Recipes, Travel, Uncategorized, Wine | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Italy On A Plate – Il Ragu, The Best Bolognese Sauce Recipe Ever!

In Australia, like the rest of the world we eat Bolognese sauce by the litres. Commonly known as “Spag Bol” – this dish is to be found on menus everywhere, and in every instance, there is a variation made by the chef. Sometimes this is successful, but in most instances, these Bolognese sauces bear little resemblance to anything that you will find in Italy.

However, recently I attended an Italian cooking school in Tuscany, and Paola our chef says this is the “real McCoy”. Bolognese sauce is an Italian meat-based sauce for pasta which originated in Bologna, a city in Northern Italy. There it is often referred to as Il Ragu. It is a rich, thick and hearty sauce that unctuously clings to the pasta. Italians do not eat pasta swimming in sauce but prefer a “drier” sauce that has bold and clear flavours and is equal partner to the pasta.

Bolognese is a complex sauce which involves long slow cooking to let the flavours develop and intensify. This is not a dish for people in a hurry or the impatient. It is based on a soffritto which uses finely diced onion, carrot, and celery which are sautéed in olive oil until the mixture reaches a state of browning appropriate to its intended use. A soffritto is a building block to many Italian sauces and dishes.

Ingredients
• 1 Medium Red (Spanish) onion
• 2 cloves garlic
• I small carrot
• I stalk celery
• 100gms minced pork
• 200gms minced beef
• 400gms peeled canned tomatoes (crushed or chopped)
• 2 tablespoons of torn basil leaves
• Olive oil
• Salt and pepper
• 2 glasses red wine
• 1 glass of red wine extra
Proceedure
1. Mince the onion, carrot and celery in a food processor or chop very finely by hand
2. Brown these with the olive oil in a large pan over medium heat and season with salt and pepper
3. Add the combined meat and brown well
4. When the meat starts to stick to the pan add half a glass of red wine and leave on low/medium heat to reduce again
5. Repeat this 3 times, each time adding wine, stirring and leaving it to reduce
6. Mash tomatoes (if whole) and pour over to meat mixture and leave to slowly infuse with the meat for 10 minutes and then mix
7. Stir in basil leaves
8. Cover and simmer for 2 hours
9. Stir occasionally and add extra hot water if necessary
10. While il ragu is cooking drink the extra glass of wine!

To serve – use any type of pasta that you prefer, but tagliatelle is the Italian choice. In the absence of tagliatelle, you can also use other broad, flat pasta shapes, such as pappardelle or fettuccine, or with short tube shapes, such as rigatoni or penne.

Offer freshly grated parmesan cheese and a hearty red wine such as Shiraz or a Sangiovese.

Do you have any favourite Italian dishes that you would like the recipe for? Yes? Please just leave a comment below and I will blog that recipe for you….

Recipe with thanks from http://www.tuscookany.com

Categories: Cooking School, Food, Wine and Cooking, Italy, Language, Photography, Recipes, Travel, Uncategorized, Wine | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

St Petersburg – Caviar, Vodka and Canals

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After a few days of smooth sailing I am settling into life onboard, my home for the next two weeks. We arrived in St Petersburg, Russia’s gilded “Window to the West” planned by Peter the Great as a progressive city the equal of any in Europe. This grand city is located on the Neva River at the head of the Gulf of Finland on the Baltic Sea. The city was founded by Tsar Peter the Great in 1703. From 1713 to 1728 and from 1732 to 1918, Saint Petersburg was the Imperial capital of Russia. The city was built by conscripted peasants from all over Russia plus a number of Swedish prisoners of war. Tens of thousands of serfs died during the building of the city.

In 1918 the central government bodies moved from St Petersburg (then named Petrograd) to Moscow. It is Russia’s second largest city after Moscow, with almost 5 million inhabitants. In 1924 the name of the city was changed to Leningrad and in 1991 back to St Petersburg.

What a surprise this city is! On this beautiful warm and sunny morning (one of the only 40 sunny days they get here), I was delighted and surprised as to what lay before me. This city is a confection of 17th and 18th century neoclassical/empire style buildings. The large and impressive buildings and palaces that line the streets and canals are typically 3 – 5 stories high with large symmetrical windows and doorways. They are decorated with Greek style pediments and columns, iron railings and iron lace around the overhead balconies, many overflowing with baskets of flowers. The impressive palaces are vast and are identified by the gold crests over their doorways. Painted in soft pastels of cream, yellow, blue, ochre, and white they make this vista a restful and a pleasing palate to the eye. The grand civic buildings are vast and utilise impressive architectural details such as massive columns, rich ornamentation, large soaring staircase leading to gigantic doorways guarded by an array of sculptures standing guard. The most decorative are the Russian Orthodox churches with facades decorated with assorted colourful mosaics, intricately carved wood work, fancy stone and brick work and the gilded “onion” domes gleam in the sunshine.

The most impressive of all the buildings and palaces is The Hermitage. This is the oldest museum in the world, founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great wife of Peter 3rd (who was assassinated in 1762, supposedly in a conspiracy led by Catherine) and has been open to the public since 1852. The collections occupy a large complex of six historic buildings along Palace Embankment, including the Winter Palace, a former residence of the Russian emperors.

Catherine was said to have been a prodigious lover and a woman with a large sexual appetite and numerous lovers – they say numbering in the hundreds. She died in her mid-sixties (probably from exhaustion) and at that time had a lover in his mid-thirties. What a “cougar!” -to borrow an American expression.

In her lifetime Catherine acquired 4,000 paintings including old masters, 38,000 books, 10,000 engraved gems, 10,000 drawings, 16,000 coins and medals and a natural history collection filling two galleries.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 began in Saint Petersburg when the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace. In March 1917, Nicholas II abdicated both for himself and on behalf of his son, thus putting an end to the Russian monarchy. Immediately after the Revolution of 1917, the Imperial Hermitage and Winter Palace, were proclaimed state museums and eventually merged. The range of the Hermitage’s exhibits was further expanded when private art collections from several palaces of the Russian Tsars and numerous private mansions were nationalized and then redistributed among major Soviet state museums. Particularly notable was the influx of old masters from the Catherine Palace, the Alexander Palace, the Stroganov Palace and the Yusupov Palace as well as from other palaces of Saint Petersburg and suburbs.

In 1928, the Soviet government ordered the Hermitage to compile a list of valuable works of art for export. In 1930-1934, over two thousand works of art from the Hermitage collection were clandestinely sold by the communist regime, at auctions abroad or directly to foreign officials and business people. The proceeds no doubt found their way to the pockets of the Communist Party Leaders. Who said that high level corruption is only to be found in the decadent West?

Overlooking the huge act of theft on the part of the communists, the collection is vast and extremely impressive, ranging from Egyptian, Greek, Roman and other antiquities, Flemish and Dutch Maters, a vast Italian collection, a large sculpture gallery, a large number of Impressionist paintings and a modern art collection. It is said that if you spent only 1 minute looking at every piece in the collection it would take 7 years of your life.

During World War II, St Petersburg – then Leningrad, was besieged by German forces. The siege lasted 872 days from September 1941 to January 1944. The Siege of Leningrad was one of the longest, most destructive and most lethal sieges of a major city in modern history. It isolated the city from most supplies except those provided through the Road of Life across Lake Ladoga, and more than a million civilians died, mainly from starvation. Many others were eventually evacuated or escaped by themselves, so the city became largely depopulated.

Today, St Petersburg appears to be thriving. There is evidence that the government is spending money on improving the local infrastructure and on the restoration of these wonderful buildings and palaces. It is said that St Petersburg is Vladimir Putin’s favourite city, hence the flow of money to complete these civil works.

There are many tourists about from all corners of the world – on foot, in coaches, and moving along the vast network of canals in open boats. If you have not procured an independent tourist visa prior to arrival, you can only travel about under the supervision and control of a local guide. The need for hard western cash is evident when you visit many of the popular tourist sites, museums, galleries etc you will amazed at the huge numbers of people they let into the buildings and at times you feel like cattle being herded along.

The complete lack of regard and care that many of the priceless works of art are housed in and maintained is astounding. Hordes of people crowding into rooms and galleries – pressing up against art works, open windows allowing smog, humidity and dirt to drift in and settle everywhere, the lack of security which allows naughty children, and adults alike, to touch exhibits, and the crush of humanity in small rooms can be overwhelming.

Here are some Russian tips and facts:
1. Russians don’t usually say “please” or “thank you”
2. There are a lot of police in Russia, most of whom do nothing other than to try to rip you off
3. Russians drink a lot of vodka
4. 10% of the governments income comes from the sale of vodka.
5. Russians do not have a sense of style. If it looks cheap and nasty – they love it
6. The only alcohol-free zones in Russia are McDonalds
7. Young Russians are attractive, fit and lean – older Russians are fat and ugly
8. Russians love to criticize their own country, but will be offended if a foreigner does
9. Russians aren’t politically correct. Go ahead and tell a joke based on ethnicity, appearance, or gender stereotypes; just steer clear of jokes about somebody’s mother or father. You won’t be understood
10. Russians never shake hands over a door way, they believe it leads to arguments

I would like to give you a challenge… Not Russian Roulette but can you make a Russian immigration official smile? These people have a the countenance of a head from Easter Island, impassive, blank and bloodless. Give it a go – I dare you!

Please leave a comment below – do you have any interesting Russian tips or facts?

Categories: Food, Wine and Cooking, Language, Photography, St Petersburg, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Stockholm – Venice of the North

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The flight from Rome to Stockholm via Munich was uneventful but I was fascinated to watch the Italian landscape change from the chaotic patchwork of farms to the cool green meadows of the alpine region of the Alps. The stone houses and barns of the Italian countryside are surrounded by brown fields, newly ploughed or a tapestry of ripe wheat and corn waiting to be harvested. Dense oak forests hug craggy hillsides where small hill top towns adorn the summits and spill over the edges like icing dripping over a cake.

As I fly across the Alps, the landscape changes to a vivid green in the deep valleys that vast glaciers cut between the mountains long ago. Nestling in the bottom of these glacial valleys, are quaint villages of white houses with red roofs which cluster along the river banks that meander through these picture book valleys. On either side of the valleys, the mountains rise up vertically from the valley floor. The verdant meadows give way to rocky grey summits where in some sheltered pockets there is perpetual snow.

The view from the aeroplane window could be described as panoramic unlike the sight of my lunch tray which drew gaps of horror not delight from my lips. Lufthansa as you know is the national carrier for Germany so this nationalistic fervour may account for a dinner of meatballs (closely resembling male anatomical parts) floating in a soggy soup of sauerkraut. This may not be the wisest meal to feed to 100 or so people who are trapped in a tin can 30,000 feet above the earth for 4 hours -the atmosphere in the plane may get a bit ripe after consuming this dinner!

My wish for cooler weather after the unrelenting heat of Italy was granted. On arrival in Stockholm, I was greeted with driving rain and a cold blustery wind whipping the fallen leaves out of the gutters. The drive from the airport was through dense pine forests and after about 45 minutes we are in the centre of Stockholm. What a beautiful city this is. There is water everywhere. The buildings are low rise and this makes for an intimate city on a human scale. No soaring canyons that block out the light and create great wind tunnels.

Founded around 1250 Stockholm is a conglomerate of 14 islands on the coast in the south-east of Sweden at the mouth of Lake Mälaren and it has a population of around 1.5 million. Sometimes called the “Venice of the North” Stockholm is known for its beauty, its buildings and the many styles of architecture. The first part of the name (stock) means log in Swedish, although it may also be connected to an old German word (Stock) meaning fortification. The second part of the name (holm) means islet. We explored the city by foot, bus and canal boat gaining an insight into the life of the City and its different sectors.

One of the islands is Stockholm’s core – the present Old Town – Gamla Stan which was built on the central island in the 13th century. This small island is a warren of cobbled streets, interesting buildings dating from the Middle Ages and later, cute little squares and tiny green spaces. There is a central square which is surrounded by beautiful buildings and is a congregation point for many tourists who flock there to people watch or take a breather to rest their feet after navigating the treacherous cobble stones.

Gamla Stan is also the site of the royal palace, an imposing square building that overlooks many parts of the city and other islands. Today this is the administrative centre for the Royal household and a place where important ceremonial duties and functions are carried out. It is an impressive sight when it is time for changing of the guard at the palace as a large cavalry troop parades through the streets, all gleaming, pressed and handsome on their chestnut horses.

The city originally rose to prominence as a result of the Baltic trade between many of the neighbouring countries: Denmark, Estonia, Norway, Germany and Poland. This ideal geographic position also brought many wars and disputes to its shores, the aggressors hoping to steal more land, power and wealth. These battles see-sawed over the centuries particularly between Denmark and Sweden and to this day there seems to be some underlying tensions often disguised as humour.

The next leg of the holiday is a 2-week cruise around the Baltic. We made our way to the harbour where we could see giant ferries that traverse the Baltic from Stockholm to St Petersburg, Helsinki, Estonia and other ports to the east and to the west Copenhagen, Oslo and other ports along the way. These giant ferries take hundreds of passengers and trucks, bikes and cars traversing the shipping lanes of the Baltic.

Our ship was easily identified by its gracious nautical profile and the 5 masts that will carry the sails when we are out to sea. It is the largest sailing ship in the world and carries about 300 passengers and 150 staff. All your creature comforts are catered for, a beauty salon for massages and facials, gym (I am not inclined to venture in there), a coffee shop where you can get a coffee and sandwich, 3 restaurants, a pool deck with a small pool and 2 hot tubs, 2 bars and lounges, quiet nooks to lounge both in and out of the sun.

We set sail around 6 pm and head out to sea through the myriad of pretty islands that make up Stockholm’s harbour. We turn east and head for St Petersburg – a 2-day sail away. I sink into life on board – relaxing by the pool in warm sun (no scorching Mediterranean heat here), reading, gazing out over the deep blue sea, contemplating the world from the other side of my eye lids, lulled by the quiet as the only sound is the swishing of the wind and the waves.

Some people say that the only clock needed on board is the one in your tummy. The day starts with breakfast where there is an ample buffet of fruit, yoghurt, smoothies, juices, hot savoury dishes – prepared and on order, smoked salmon and the trimmings, freshly baked bread, rolls and pastries. Lunch is a buffet – a range of salads and cold cuts, cheeses, fruit, deserts, ice creams and a daily bread and butter pudding, to supplement this there is a made to order pasta dish. Afternoon tea is served on deck – mini rolls and cakes and cookies. At dinnertime savouries are served with cocktails in the lounge and then dinner comprises a selection of appetisers, salad and soups, main course and finishing with cheese and dessert. After all that if you wake up at 2.00 am and have the munchies there is 24-hour room service.

If you enjoyed this blog please leave a comment below and forward this onto your friends. Thank you.

Next port of call – St Petersburg – stay tuned for more fun on the high sea.

Categories: Food, Wine and Cooking, Language, Photography, Stockholm, Travel, Uncategorized, Wine | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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